More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes #6: Talking Heads, Fear of Music

July 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Finished long ago: Fear of Music, by Jonathan Lethem (Continuum’s 33 1/3 series no. 86).

I recommend this piece of criticism/memoir/fan’s notes wholeheartedly, if you’re a Talking Heads fan, though there’s plenty of room for disagreement with some of Lethem’s points and his overall interpretive framework (about which more below).  Personally, I hadn’t listened to this album in its entirety very closely before; listening along with reading Lethem’s book was rewarding.  A few tidbits that will stick with me from my reading:

-“Cities” is a great song which I became addicted to as I listened to the album, and Lethem has an excellent reading of it as “‘Life During Wartime”s younger brother, as disco is a younger sibling to funk, more frisky and free…”  I’d never thought of it as a disco song, but really, it’s a great disco song, if you just take it at sonic face value.  And the lyrics do form an interesting, more optimistic — or perhaps more effectively self-medicated — counterpoint to the apocalyptic “Life During Wartime.”  As both Lethem and the late great David Bowman (in his bio of the Heads,This Must Be the Place) point out, a lot of this album is influenced by the band’s punishing touring schedule, and that’s also apparent in the emphasis here and elsewhere on movement, various locales, and vehicles.

-Lethem sometimes seems overextended in his theory that this is a concept album of sorts — especially in his treatment of its first song, “I Zimbra,” which would be the necessary last, not first, song for a supposed concept album about fear, the mysteries of everyday things, urban life, and the perils of consciousness, no matter how much he tries to label it an “end run” or “preemptive workaround” — but he is certainly right when he writes about the album’s evident themes and consistent tone, and that listening to the iconic “Life During Wartime” in its original context of this album is absolutely essential to getting at the heart of the song.  It sounds different, here, than it does on its own, which is how I’ve mostly listened to it on the greatest hits album (in an awesome live version) and countless mixes.

-The chapter on “Heaven” is great: I had honestly never paid conscious attention to the disconnect here between the pounding of the bass and drums and the ethereal balladeering of everything else, but everyone notices that this is a different kind of “slow song,” and that’s obviously why. Lethem is convincing as to why that is — how the bass “is easily the best thing and the worst thing on the track,” because it is so out of step with the cloying, floating quality of the song that it “punctures any sanctimony or bogus mystery here.”

And yet Lethem weirdly refuses to use the names of Chris Frantz (drummer) and Tina Weymouth (bassist) throughout the book, almost always referring to them as “the drummer” and “the bass player.”  What the hell is that?  If Bowman’s book taught me nothing else, it was that the tension between Byrne and Weymouth, who was the media darling of the band in its early days, was the driving force in the band’s chemistry.  I have no idea why he’s elided her name here.

-Lethem’s strategy here of alternating between chapters doing close listening of each track and thematic explorations of the album is  nice, and as a whole works well, but it’s his exploration of his relationship with the album as an enthralled teenager that’s really fascinating.  I love his memory of the radio spot (currently not found online) for the album, and his interesting discussion of why the album meant so much to him at the time, as only albums or songs or bands can mean so much to the young before those things become immensely popular, and why he fell away from the band later.  (I differ from him from my latecomer’s perspective; he was crazy at the time, and remains crazy, to damn the ’80s work with faint praise.)  He explains realizing in the ’80s that Speaking in Tongues “was basically Funkadelic with David Byrne singing.”  Again, I beg to differ — this is insulting both to Talking Heads, and to George Clinton, and in what freaking universe is “This Must Be the Place” anything like a Funkadelic song?  Nevertheless, the exploration of his history with and through this band that meant so much to him makes this worthwhile if you’re interested in Lethem, or hipster music culture, or the 1980s.

More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes #5: “Supernatural Superserious” and My R.E.M. Favorites Playlist

February 19, 2012 § 5 Comments

R.E.M. broke up last year, and I’ve been wanting to write something about them ever since, but I’m just now getting around to it.  This may be ridiculous to say at our particular, continually overhyped and hyperventilating historical/cultural moment, but I do feel like the breakup was a bigger deal, in fact, than it was made out to be.  R.E.M. was one of the world’s greatest bands.  For certain people — mostly (but not all!) white, mostly (but not all!) well educated, mostly (but not all!) creatively inclined — they were paragons.  They made art, not product.  They cared about beauty and integrity.  They cared about not selling out.  They were from Athens, not New York, not L.A.

I’m old enough to have cared deeply about R.E.M. when they were at their peak, but not old enough to have caught onto them when they were still under the radar.  But if you were listening to music when Out of Time, Green, and Automatic for the People came out, you went back and found the earlier stuff, too.  I mean, I went to a small Lutheran boarding high school in Nebraska, and our dorm supervisor had a t-shirt from the Automatic for the People tour.  Everyone loved this band.  They are now retired as a band (although of course there’s always the possibility of a reunion).  They would probably get my vote as the greatest American band, period.

Of course, there was that long trough between New Adventures and Accelerate — those three boring albums after Bill Berry quit the band.  But I feel like their last two albums made up for that: these were really great records, overlooked mostly, I think, because R.E.M. had just been around for so long, and they were always going to sell a certain number of albums.  R.E.M. embraced their status as elder statesmen on these albums; their songs weren’t preachy, but they often contained a message.  The sound seemed to epitomize what people think of when they think of R.E.M.

My favorite song from these two albums is probably “Supernatural Superserious” off of Accelerate, though there are a number of great tracks on Collapse Into Now as well.

This is, to start, just a great song, with that R.E.M mix of chime and jangle with power and hook.  I love basically any R.E.M. song that features Mike Mills chiming in on vocals, and this has some lovely harmony/background vocals by him.  It also features an especially inspired performance by Michael Stipe: he sounds like he cares on this track.  (My least favorite part of the song is probably the somewhat cutesy title.  I learn that the Coldplay dude renamed it from its superior working title, “Disguised.”  That would explain it.)

There’s a lot going on in these lyrics.  It starts with a terrific, epigrammatic first line: “Everybody here comes from somewhere that they would just as soon forget and disguise.”  And then we get this knockout verse:

At the summer camp where you volunteered

No one saw your face, no one saw your fear

If that apparition had just appeared,

Took you up and away from this base and sheer humiliation

Of your teenage station

Nobody cares

No one remembers and nobody cares

So we have a song about adolescence.  A summer camp; a hypothetical, perhaps hopeful “apparition”; teenage humiliation.  And this astonishing bit of advice: Nobody cares.  No one remembers, and nobody cares.  This is like the flip side of “Everybody Hurts”: everyone is disguising something they feel humiliated about.  Everyone is too wrapped up in their own dilemmas to care about yours.  That summer-camp humiliation?  Forgotten.  Not worth all the angst. The chorus (“Yeah you cried and you cried/He’s alive, he’s alive/Yeah you cried and you cried and you cried and you cried”) doesn’t sound uplifting based on the lyrics — at all — but it is, especially with those sweet Mike Mills vocals.  We have another implication of the supernatural in that repeated “he’s alive”: is “he” Christ? The teenager’s “apparition”?

This first verse and chorus remind me of a story by Reynolds Price entitled “Michael Egerton.”  It was written when Price was still a teenager, but Mr. Price seems to have been born something of an elder statesman.  It’s a summer-camp tale in which the title character is bullied for missing a championship baseball game, metaphorically “crucified” for his sensitivity.  (It also references the folk song “Green Grow the Rushes,” which is of course also an R.E.M. song.  Not that I think there was any influence by Price on R.E.M., just a funny coincidence.)

Stipe then builds in references to sexuality, theatricality, and S&M (safe words, chafing “ropes,” “fantasies” dressed up as “travesties”) to complicate these themes of disguise and “humiliation,” leading to a straightforward message: “Enjoy yourself with no regrets.”  And that’s as good an encapsulation of R.E.M.’s message as you’re likely to find.

There follows another great verse:

Now there’s nothing dark and there’s nothing weird

Don’t be afraid I will hold you near

From the seance where you first betrayed

An open heart on a darkened stage

A celebration of your teenage station

A seance that’s also a celebration, which was formerly a humiliation: that’s memory, folks.  That’s R.E.M.’s past, that’s the past for all of us.  You will end up celebrating, reminiscing about, calling up from the dead those events that were once so embarrassing.  Enjoy yourself, with no regrets.


In that spirit of celebration, here’s my R.E.M. favorites playlist (not in order of preference, but an order in which I enjoy listening to them — and apologies for whatever annoying ads you may encounter):

  1. Finest Worksong
  2. It Happened Today (this has a great video with extended version of the song, by the way)
  3. Swan Swan H
  4. You Are the Everything (sadly, no “official” version; this is a near-contemporary live version, and it’s beautiful, but I do miss Mike Mills’s background vocals from the album track)
  5. Don’t Go Back to Rockville
  6. Try Not to Breathe
  7. Man On the Moon
  8. Cuyahoga (fairly faithful live version, but no substitute for the original.  There’s also a very nice cover by the Decemberists here)
  9. Near Wild Heaven
  10. Sweetness Follows
  11. Driver 8
  12. What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?
  13. Orange Crush
  14. Turn You Inside-Out
  15. Supernatural Superserious
  16. Undertow (live version, but very close to the album track.  Note: I love the New Adventures in Hi-Fi album. It was tough not to include “E-Bow the Letter,” “Electrolite,” “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us,” and others.)
  17. Let Me In (there’s also a truly amazing live version from the Monster tour)
  18. Fall On Me
  19. Half a World Away
  20. Nightswimming

More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes #4: The Best of Matthew Sweet

May 2, 2011 § 3 Comments

“In a deceiving way, time is only a dream.”  -Matthew Sweet, “Through Your Eyes”

I gave myself the task of ranking my top 20 Matthew Sweet songs for my first playlist of the summer.  Sweet, for those of you who haven’t been indoctrinated, is one of the great American songwriters.  He is Nebraskan.  He writes shimmery pop songs, devastatingly sad songs, songs that are both, folk songs, hard rock songs.  Great songs, mostly.  Here’s my list, culled from a list of 50 songs I really and truly love: the best of the best.  I’d love to hear others’ favorites.  This world needs a Matthew Sweet revival.

20. “Back of My Mind,” from Sunshine LiesSunshine Lies is one of those albums that sneaks up on you, and you only realize it’s  good after four or five listens.  This song is the first example on this list of the central theme of Sweet’s oeuvre: inexorable, pliable, hateful, merciful Time, and the vast range of human reactions to the phenomenon.

19-17. “Millennium Blues,” “If Time Permits,” and “Beware My Love,” from In Reverse.  This three-song suite opens the album; its  bookend, the magisterial nine-minute “Thunderstorm,” was one of the toughest omissions from this list.  I love the horns in “Millennium Blues,” and that great transition from the sweetness of “If Time Permits” to the slightly psychedelic menace of “Beware My Love.”  This album, just by the way, was criminally overlooked.  Criminally.  It’s fantastic, and it’s not even one of his best three albums.

16. “Let’s Love,” from Sunshine Lies. In which Mr. Sweet displays his incomparable gifts for the Hook and the Harmony.  (Link to a live acoustic version.)

15. “Through Your Eyes,” from Kimi Ga Suki * Raifu. A great song about Buddhist cosmology, from Sweet’s album for his Japanese fans which finally got released in the US after word got out how great it was. The Girlfriend lineup is in full force here.

14. “Where You Get Love,” from Blue Sky on Mars. I have no explanation for why this wasn’t a massive hit, back in 1997.  I know I was psyched about it. I know it had a really rad video. I know it’s as propulsive as anything he’s written.  Seriously, someone tell me: why wasn’t this a hit, and why did this album tank?  Were keyboards really that uncool in 1997?

13. “Morning Song,” from Kimi Ga Suki * Raifu. Quintessential Sweet: shimmery, sunny, gorgeous, beautiful, but with a touch of darkness in the lyrics. Plus it’s a helluva lotta fun to sing along with.

12. “What Do You Know?,” from Altered Beast. I am tempted to make all sorts of grandiose claims for this album — most underappreciated album in American pop music, one of the top ten albums of the ’90s, most expansive, genre-defying rock record of the decade, etc. — but I’m unqualified for all that.  So I’ll just say you really, really need to go listen to it if you haven’t, or even if you haven’t in a while.  And if you trash it, I will come after you like a spider monkey.

11. “Untitled,” from In Reverse. I have no words.  This song’s just gorgeous.  Instead, here’s a question: why haven’t these songs been covered more often?  Half of the songs here could be massive hits for a country star.  Or anyone, really.

10. “We’re the Same,” from 100% Fun. For me, like probably a lot of people my age, this is the soundtrack of the summer of ’95.  It’s a perfect summer song.  It sounds fantastic when you’re driving around at night with the windows down.  Here’s the thing: Matthew Sweet can write a pure, perfect pop song in his sleep.  Like Prince.  Like Paul McCartney.  There’s only a handful of these people.  It starts the top ten, then, but every song that I ranked higher than this takes that gift and does something extra-special with it.  At least to these ears.

9. “Sunlight,” from Living Things.  A really cool song, aurally, with an epic feel, and a lot of layers. There’s a lot of interesting nature and animal imagery in this album’s lyrics, as there is in much of Sweet’s work.

8. “Evangeline,” from Girlfriend. Girlfriend. Where to start here?  Like a lot of people, this is where I started with Sweet.  And on first listen, when I was 14, this was my favorite song.  I’ve had at least five different favorite songs on this album (always a trademark of a classic album when it keeps up with your changing tastes).  In those pre-www days, I was really keen to find the Evangeline comics, and could not for the life of me, in small-town Nebraska.  Now I work at a library that owns them, and I’ve shown them to undergraduate students studying visual art, comics, and the like — mostly because it just makes me happy to be able to do so.  (Link to a live version.)

7. “I Don’t Want to Know,” from Kimi Ga Suki * Raifu.  Love the kitty at the start.  And the tambourines — or are they sleigh bells?  And the chorus, one of his best.

6. “Smog Moon,” from 100% Fun.  It sort of kills me to leave this out of the top five.  I cannot be in the same room with you if you do not appreciate this song.  One of my favorite final tracks ever.  “There’s a smog moon/ In the amber sky/ Wavering and burning like a golden lie.”  Also, “We both know that staying young can take its toll.” (Link to hilarious Vampire Diaries fan video scored to this song.)

5. “Time Capsule,” from Altered Beast. Another song with a fantastic (and creepy!) video.  While I love the songs I ranked above this a tad more, I think this is probably the song I’d pick if I had to introduce someone to Matthew Sweet with only one song.  My second-favorite Sweet chorus, especially that last line, toe-tripping down the stairs.

4. “Winona,” from Girlfriend. The go-to song for wallowing in melancholic self-pity, as a teenager.  Because of that, and because it’s a song that just really sounds good as a duet, it is incredibly satisfying to sing along with a loved one, holding hands, having gotten past all that.  (Link to creepy Winona Ryder slideshow, but hey, it’s the only source on YouTube for the original song.)

3. “Sick of Myself,” from 100% Fun.  I know, I know: Nirvana.  But this was as close as I ever got to claiming an anthem.  Hell, realistically, the generation was never as idealistic nor as hopelessly fucked up as Nirvana would lead you to believe.  This song reflects that.

2. “Girlfriend,” from Girlfriend.  I would appreciate the opportunity to love somebody.  Oh, are you looking for someone whom you could love?

Seriously though: I suppose the key to this song, beyond one of the best riffs in history, is the Chorus of Angelic Matthew Sweets.  They’ve never sounded better.  That and the interplay of electric, steel, and acoustic guitars.

1. “Someone to Pull the Trigger,” from Altered Beast.  But this, right here, is the best Matthew Sweet song.  Stone cold perfect.  “I need someone to pull the trigger/ ‘Cause there’s a hole in my heart getting bigger/ And everything I’ll ever be I’ve been/ And I need someone to pull the trigger/ So if you’re what I think you’ll be,/ If you’re who I think I see,/ shoot.”  That, my friends, is as great a chorus as any of us will ever hear.

By the way, this needs to be available in a karaoke version.  (Kellyn, I’m looking at you.  Make it happen.)  You could really get a room full of drunks sobbing with this one.

More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes #3: “A Wild Holy Band,” Mike Scott

January 30, 2011 § 11 Comments

This song was released as a demo on the CD that came with the Believer‘s 2009 music issue.  I liked it when I first listened to it, then more or less forgot about it for a year.  I generally don’t listen to this kind of compilation CD very much, but for whatever reason I put this one back in earlier this year, and promptly became totally obsessed with this song.  (Unfortunately, it’s still unreleased in any other form, so far as I can tell, so I can’t give you a link to it here.  [UPDATE, 1/25/12: Mike Scott has posted the song for one night only to  Listen there!]  You can find plenty of the Waterboys, Mike Scott’s band, to get a sense of the sound.)

The song’s ten-plus minutes: for the first nine or so, it’s just piano, acoustic guitar, and what I’m guessing is a drum machine, plugging along, workmanlike (with some quite lovely passages on the piano and guitar), under Scott’s really great Scottish lilt.  Five verses and an absolutely killer chorus.  It’s a song that cries out for interpretation, analysis, but even though it’s supposedly a demo, it forms a gestalt: it’s a song, not a poem, and you can’t get it all just by looking at the lyrics.  So much is in the delivery.  But what lyrics!

I was longing to be booed/ I was ready to be humbled/ by the words that you had written/ by the syllables you mumbled

Yeah, I was ready in my heart/ to have my heart invaded/ by the fervor of your passion/ yes, I came to be persuaded

But when I heard your ragged voice/ something switched in my perception/ and I knew I was the victim/ of a beautiful deception

All my once exact beliefs/ like tangled threads unraveled/ I walked out stunned and liberated/ and so began my travels

CHORUS: Keep the river on your right/ and the highway at your shoulder/ and the front line in your sights, Pioneer/ keep your eye on the road/ remember what you told her/ this is all in code, my dear

The only word in the whole song I’m not reasonably sure about hearing correctly is that “booed” in the very first line: it sure sounds like “booed” to me, though I always assumed it was “moved” before I started listening closely to transcribe the lyrics.  In context, “booed” makes some sense, leading to that readiness “to be humbled” — but I’m not sure.  [UPDATE, 1/25/12: Mike Scott posts to Twitter: “Mystery word in verse 1 is “wooed,” not “booed.”  Thanks to Mr. Scott for clearing it up!]  Either way, this first verse sets a great scene.  It could be some combination of a “Dear John” letter and a confrontation at the end of a relationship; it could be a teacher/student relationship, the switch in “perception” being that the teacher has nothing more to teach the student; it could be any number of more allegorical or spiritual meanings.  But I really love those last two lines of the chorus: “remember what you told her/ this is all in code, my dear.”  Is “this” the song?  Is there a code here?  And is “Pioneer” a name, a code name, a type, a la Whitman?

“You better get yourself a coat”/ said the handsome taxi driver/ and he sighed like seven bridges/ like a natural-born survivor

As we drove into the night/ I could feel the forest jangling/ all the choices laid before me/ and their consequences dangling

We came upon a stricken ship/ that must have once been splendid/ the captain as he died said/ “Boys, our revels now have ended”

I heard a wild holy band/ playing jazz that was outrageous/ that recalled the days of rapture/ when our love was still young and contagious


This is my favorite verse, and a helluva piece of poetry in its own right.  That “forest jangling” from adrenaline (or something more?), that cryptic ship, the “jazz that was outrageous”: it’s here that we start to realize that we’re in Beat territory.  “Seven bridges” is another lyric I’m not 100% sure about, but I kind of like its mystery.

In a dim-lit motel room/ two sad lovers were discoursing/ on the dignity of exile/ and the merits of divorcing

She said/ “All certainty is gone”/ but he leapt up, still denying/ cried, “I won’t believe the flame I lit/ is dead or even dying”

She left him drooling in the dust/ and with rucksack packed begun her/ bitter journey to the border/ which is where I wooed and won her

She was Aphrodite, Helen, Thetis/ Eve among the satyrs/ she was Venus in a v-neck sweater/ she was all that ever mattered


And this is probably my least favorite verse: I like “Eve among the satyrs,” not so big on “Venus in a v-neck sweater,” and the rhythm of the third quatrain is a little strained.  As the verse begins, you think this might be a flashback to the opening scene, until hearing that the narrator “wooed and won her” at the “border” after this confrontation — similar, perhaps, to his own.

Like Dean Moriarty’s ghost/ I came in quest of secret knowledge/ in the winter of my journey/ to a crumbling Druid college

There I read the books of lore/ and contemplated in seclusion/ but I took my leave embittered/ still in love with my illusions

In the drizzling Irish rain/ as a tender dawn was breaking/ in a doorway I stood spellbound by/ the ancient music they were making

I took my breakfast with the gods/ on a blushing summer morning/ a wind blew them all away/ without a moment’s warning


Quite a change in scene, here, and the song comes to seem more like a bildungsroman, or a story of the narrator’s spiritual quest.  We have here a direct allusion to On the Road, and that’s fitting, with that work’s blend of the profane and sacred, the sexual and the spiritual.  “Still in love with my illusions” seems a very important line here, and the mystery of the “breakfast with the gods” and then their sudden absence.

Under cold electric light/ I watched the scenes mutating/ like an old-time frontier ballad/ or a carousel rotating

As if in a moment from a film/ with astonishing precision/ the camera zooms in closer/ and a figure comes into vision

I’m in Tokyo; it’s dawn/ and it’s raining hallelujahs/ down the bright-lit neon canyons/ along the sidewalks of Shibuya

I’m trying to take a stance/ and rise above my contradictions/ but I’m just a bunch of words in pants/ most of those are fiction



This is another pretty fantastic verse, with one helluva final quatrain.  “Just a bunch of words in pants”!  Jesus, what a line.  Most of us should be so lucky to write one line so great; this song has three or four at that level.  This verse really makes me think of the song as a spiritual quest, with serious Buddhist underpinnings: its recollection of epiphany or near-epiphany (what does it mean to “rain hallelujahs”?)  in Japan, followed by the (necessary?) devastation of realizing the hollowness of existence or identity, of being mostly “fiction.

And yet there’s that inescapable, beautiful, hopeful chorus, which Scott uses with such versatility and passion throughout the song.  Somehow — and this may just be me — I connect it in my mind with that Irish blessing you see in pubs and shops and elsewhere: “May the road rise up to meet you./ May the wind be always at your back./ May the sun shine warm upon your face;/ the rains fall soft upon your fields; and until we meet again,/ may God hold you in the palm of His hand.”   Yeah, it’s a song about God, I think, or about one man’s quest for “secret knowledge” of something like a god, at any rate.  The first verse is covered in this kind of language of the spiritual.  Is that the “code” that “this is all in” — the code of the pop song that seems like it’s about sex or lust and is actually about the desire to let go of the self, to find the divine?

Either way, the kick-ass electric guitar kicking in at the end here never fails to absolutely delight me: it’s such a surprise, and it functions as a kind of wordless, wild epiphany and ecstasy after minutes of repetitive sound with little variation.

More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes #2: My Top Five Songs of the Decade

December 8, 2009 § 3 Comments

It’s impossible to distill a decade’s worth of music into five songs; but here are the ones that seem most memorable to me, at the moment.  Ask me in a month and I’m sure the list will have changed.

Here’s my #5 song of the decade: “Rise Up With Fists!” by Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins.  (Sorry about the Hee-Haw laffs in the video, which can throw off the mood a little if you don’t already know the song.  But hey, you’re cool — of course you know this song already.)  The songs on this album (Rabbit Fur Coat) are straight-up incredible.  They nail a particular blend of deadpan humor, irony, and heartfelt emotion that is purely of the decade, for me at least.  Not to mention those perfect opening lines: “What are you changing?  Who do you think you’re changing?  You can’t change things.  We’re all stuck in our ways.”  Yeah, that’s 2006, all right.  But the best is when the Watson Twins chime in with “Not your wife.”  Soul/alt-country: in a lot of ways this was one of the two or three albums in the decade that felt made just for me, hitting that aesthetic sweet spot.

#4 comes from another: The Greatest, by Cat Power, far and away the best album of the decade to me.  I’ve had at least five different favorite songs from this album: right now I’m on “Lived in Bars.”  (Two days ago, I had “The Moon” in this spot.)

God, this song is incredible.  Chan Marshall has always had this unbelievable voice, and I think on The Greatest she finally figured out what to do with it.  There always seemed to be something missing, in her previous work: say, a glimmer of hope, a ray of sunshine, or an inkling of a smile.  Here, she’s working with absolutely flawless Memphis session players (damn, those horns!), and the material, I think, is her best, too.  Frankly, to be against this album is to have given up on beauty in this world.  This song blows me away: it’s somehow epic and gritty and mundane and lyrical and joyful and sad all at once.  There must be a jukebox in a bar somewhere that always plays this at last call.  How could you not shimmy your way out the door to that, with a tear in your eye?

#3 is “Unless It’s Kicks,” by Okkervil River, from The Stage Names.  If you get a chance to see them live, do it: this song is fantastic in person.  Seeing them (at Cat’s Cradle, in Carrboro, NC) was probably my second-best concert-going experience of the decade.  Such an awesome riff.  Such a steady build.  When Will Sheff sings about “the ghost of some rock-and-roll fan,” and they launch into that solo… the roof could’ve come down.

#2 is “Hey Ya!,” by Outkast.

Flawless.  A perfect song about the impossibility of monogamy that is now an integral part of our national fabric — probably got played at the Republican National Convention at some point, it’s so omnipresent and joyful-sounding and universally loved.  The epitome of the decade’s hyperactive reworking of old styles, old genres, old techniques into something fresh.

#1 is “Black Tambourine,” by Beck.

This song grows… and grows… and grows on you.  Pretty soon it becomes the best thing you’ve heard in an entire decade.  I’d more or less forgotten about it until we saw Inland Empire at the Music Box in Chicago; it’s used in, hands-down, the best (and creepiest) musical montage of the decade.  And suddenly, you realize what a strange song it is; how it sounds old and new, digital and analog, folkloric and popular.  Mostly catchy, and eerie, as hell; and timeless, and mysterious.  I don’t even think Beck would think of this as his best work — in this decade, Beck has certainly become the closest thing to Dylan that this generation will stand for — but it’s the song I’ll remember most.

As a special bonus song: my favorite concert-going experience of the decade was Head of Femur at Schuba’s in Chicago, their CD-release party. Their cover of “The True Wheel” just barely missed this list; do yourself a favor, pick up a copy of Ringodom or Proctor, and listen to pure joy. This YouTube clip is from last year, and isn’t quite as awesome as when I saw them way back when, but it’s still pretty rad; they fill up that tiny stage, and it’s incredible when everyone starts jumping around.

More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes #1: “Miracle Drug,” A.C. Newman

November 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

I am not one for pop-music criticism — you can find some wank defending anything with whatever flimsy criteria in whatever prominent forum you choose; let me just come out as a philistine and say that good popular music’s goodness resides in its making you want to listen and, if possible, move to it, repeatedly, and do we really need a theory for that? — but I thought I might introduce an occasional feature to highlight songs that I enjoy both as music and as a kind of literature: not just story-songs (although I’ll surely include some good story-songs), but songs which interest me in the narratives they create with their combinations of words and music.  Not critical appraisals, but notes on songs I like. Because, despite what I just said up there, I do think there are some fine narrative artists working in music.  Therefore, “More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes” (a strained homage to the Talking Heads album More Songs About Buildings and Food).

My current obsession can be heard here, by clicking on “Media,” then “Miracle Drug.”  (Apologies for the reroute; I’d like to embed but am both too cheap and too paranoid about copyright law to make the post easily available here.)

Are you back?  Okay.  I’m late to this, having missed The Slow Wonder for about six years despite the New Pornographers being more or less my favorite band of the past decade, and just got the album a few weeks ago.  (I am old: I buy physical things called “albums,” often on shiny “compact discs.”)  I love how compact this song is: just three verses, as cryptic as pretty much every A.C. Newman and New Pornographers song, but with a much stronger narrative throughline than usual.

There are many mysteries in this song — what’s the miracle drug?  what’s with these weird inscribed trophies? — but here’s the narrative I developed around the song: the first verse is about a somewhat pathetic suicide — or is it a murder? is he tied down to the bed by force, or tied like a heroin addict might be? — that “miracle drug” a poison, or overdose, after the receipt of yet another form rejection of the young man’s “great lost novel.”  Perhaps we then move back in time, with the desperate man deciding to try to “err on this side of divine” despite his “perilous slide into crime,” perhaps the crime of selling drugs, or just abusing them; and perhaps we move back even farther, as the young man finds himself “tied to a job selling miracle drugs” and receiving motivational (or mysterious) trophies for the work he’s doing.  Boredom and quiet desperation at being tied to a (possibly evil — what’s this “miracle drug,” anyway?) job; shift to crime as an attempt to find a way to freedom; last-ditch effort to redeem youthful dreams of the life of the artist shattered.  But of course, could be each verse is about a different “he,” or maybe I’ve overstated the first verse as being about a suicide attempt.  Anyway, I love the noir overtones of the song, how it works as the catchiest hardboiled story you’ve ever heard.

I love the recurring words “interest,” with its three different tones — devastatingly dismissive, hopeful, and menacing — and “tied,” with its different literal meanings but meaningful connection.  But what the hell’s up with “So why all the history now?”  Or is it “So why all the mystery now?”  That would make more sense, but it sure sounds like “history.”  It seems like it might be a line used only for phonetic and tonal purposes, without carrying any narrative weight.  Or perhaps I’m just missing something.

I also love the music, which works against and with the noir narrative in interesting ways.  Every time I listen to the song, I’m fascinated by that awesome beeping rhythm in the breaks: sounds kind of like a stylized alarm clock or phone ringing, and carries a lot of urgency along with sounding rad in Newman’s rich soundscape.  (What is that, anyway?  Melodion?  Synthesizer?  Can someone with a modicum of musical knowledge help me out here?)

Overall, the song keeps reminding me of “Paperback Writer,” mostly because of the content of the frustrated amateur writer but also because the songs are of virtually identical length, and both have that booming guitar hook.

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