July 2008

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It’s interesting to speculate, when listening to a performance that clearly taps into genuine emotion, what motivates the singer.

I was listening last night to two versions of “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” — Peter La Farge’s original and a late Townes Van Zandt cover (released in 1997, after his death). Both are great, and break my heart, and are very different from each other.

Listen to the La Farge version first. It sounds to me like he knows he he has a good story* to work with, and he’s just going to tell it pretty much straight. He isn’t a songwriting genius, but it feels like the song stirs him ambitions. He feels that if he can tell the story as well as he can, and communicate that to other people, that it could make a difference in the world.
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Today, one of my very favorite songs ever. Ain’t Life A Brook by Ferron.

It’s one of the very few songs, indeed few works in any media, that I have so completely absorbed, that it is part of my perspective on the world. There are times when I think about something and am reminded of “Ain’t Life A Brook” and, rather than thinking “oh, there’s an image that relates” I think, “I’ve already been thinking about the situation in ways informed by ‘Ain’t Life A Brook.'”

That’s an extreme statement to make and, obviously, that says as much about me, and accidents of circumstance that this specific song would have such meaning for me. Even looking at it based on “objective” merit, however, I would say it’s a fabulous song.

It’s one of the best narrative songs that I can think of. It describes the evolution of emotional states of the narrator, over a period of years, in way that is economical and also very clear and specific.

Like the polished stone from the song, the language lacks any unnecessary ornament. Every word has a purpose in the song, and feels well chosen for the emotional tone.

Just read the opening lines

I watch you reading a book
I get to thinking our
Love’s a polished stone
You give me a long drawn look
I know pretty soon
You’re gonna leave our home
And of course I mind

It does so much in seven lines. It sets up a scene that is domestic and both peaceful and troubled. And how much pain is captured in the understated “of course I mind.”

Despite the fact that it’s a break-up song, the ways in which the song has influenced me don’t necessarily relate to break-ups. The phrases that are most likely to pop up in my head are:

… life don’t clickety-clack
Down a straight-line track
It comes together and it comes apart

and

I know love’s a gift
I thought yours was mine
And something
That I could keep

Both of those are just beautiful phrases about the contingencies of life and love.

In both of those sections, I feel reminded to appreciate the parts of life that are gifts, and to recognize that they may not last forever. By temperament, I am slow to incorporate new elements in my life into my sense of self, but when I do, I am loathe to give them up or change them. I feel like the song both speaks to, and cautions against that side of my personality.

Particularly in that second quote, I feel the tension in both sides of that equation. Both the hurt in someone withdrawing love (or the fear that someone might), and the problem in thinking that someone else’s love is something to be kept and owned.

I have, as a friend has described, “a slow emotional metabolism.” Since the song is about the experience of slowly metabolizing intense emotional experiences, it relates to my experience. I appreciate that the song takes a long view, and that things do resolve by the end of the song, but I also recognize in myself the problems of spending that much time working through emotions.

I should add, finally, that I have heard Ferron perform the song live — at a Pride rally a couple years ago. The whole situation was not ideal for a performance. She was performing outdoors, the sound was terrible, there was a section of people playing close attention, but also a large group of people half-engaged. When she got to “Ain’t Life A Brook” I experienced a sudden feeling of awe and wonder at that fact that I was watching the person who wrote the song perform it. It was the only time in my life that I’ve had that specific reaction to a performance — that a song seems so extraordinary and flawless that it’s remarkable to be reminded that it was written by a specific person, and that person is present.

How does one judge a cover differently from an original?

Some covers take a song and find a new heart that wasn’t present in the original. For example, Janis Joplin’s cover of “Me and Bobby McGee”. Most, however, are in some sort of dialog with the original — reinterpreting the song, while paying tribute to the success of the original.

How exactly that works is a tricky thing, and I have an example on which I would invite you to weigh in.

I have lately been enjoying listening to Nouvelle Vague (“New Wave”), a group that covers, mostly, post-punk classics set to a bossa nova arrangement. The idea sounds too clever by half, and it’s clearly derivative, but it works because the new arrangements are clever and well executess and pay sincere tribute to the originals.

Part of pleasure of listening to a Nouvelle Vague is, like a good compilation, it invites you to revisit the originals, and to put them in a different context and different sides of the music. As I said, in my post about evaluating songs, it makes me happy that someone did it.

It is interesting, however to think about the relationship to the original songs. Here are two examples, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” originally by Joy Division and “Guns of Brixton” originally by the Clash.

I like the second one better as a song, and as a performance, but I feel like the former is a better cover. I feel like the version of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” gets to heart of the song in way that “The Guns of Brixton” doesn’t. The second cover is clever, and clearly respectful of the original, but I feel like, in some way, it avoids really engaging the original — it just uses it as a device.

I can’t articulate my feeling any more than that, and I’d be really curious for any thoughts, either if you disagree, or if you agree and have specific elements that you would highlight.

Love Will Tear Us Apart (original)
Love Will Tear Us Apart (cover)

Guns of Brixton (original)
Guns of Brixton (cover)

Update: I noticed, for whatever reason that I’m getting a lot of downloads the the Joy Division song. I assume that means some external site has linked to me as a source of that .mp3, so I just made a minor change to the file name.

Hooks

My third way of describing songs that I like — “songs for which I would be quite disappointed if I could never hear them again” highlights songs that, in addition to any “objective” merit, hook me in some way.

Those are songs that fill some specific emotional niche, such that when I’m in the mood for that song, nothing else would substitute.

For obvious reasons, that’s a shifting category, my tastes change, and my range of moods change.

One song that’s stayed in that category for several years now, is Broken English by Marianne Faithfull. If I’m not in the mood for it, it’s just an unusually intense synth-pop song. In the right mood, her singing is as powerful and emotional as any song I can think of. It is theatrical in the best way. As I said about David Bowie earlier, she is really committed to the performance, and that makes it easy to suspend disbelief and enter into the emotional world of the song.

What are you fighting for? It’s not my security.
What are you dying for? It’s not my reality.

On the chorus, when she sings “Don’t say it in Russian. Don’t say it in German. Say it in Broken English” and stretches out the phrasing on the words “Broken English” it sums up the whole song. The phrase doesn’t mean anything literally, but her delivery captures the entire sense of insanity and wasted effort. The English in which policy is made isn’t broken because it’s spoken with an accent; it’s broken because the ideas don’t make any sense.

For anyone new to the blog, interested in recommending the blog to a friend, or who just want to be reminded of the various music that has been posted, I just updated the music page and uploaded a zip file that contains all of the music to date.

Between them, you could listen to randomly selected songs and then use the music page to look up the post that referenced a chosen song. I think of it as a good introduction, and if you’ve missed anything here’s your chance to go back and catch up.

The music page is organized alphabetically by artist, the zip file contains no organization at all.

More music later today.

Update: It appears the zip file is corrupted. I am in the process of replacing it.

Note: the blog post to which the Modest Kid alluded earlier is here. I do want to comment on that at some point. Most of what I’ve written here takes the individual song as a unit of analysis, but that post raises a question about how one builds / interprets a music collection, which is worth visiting.

Before I get to that, I wanted to do a series of posts paralleling the list in “Evaluating Songs” in which all of the linked songs include female singers. I’m spacing these out, since I don’t want to post too many songs at once, and it’s nice to include more of my thoughts.

Looking at songs that are good enough to define a career, there are probably a dozen Joni Mitchell songs that could qualify, but I’m going to go with Woodstock since it’s a favorite and I just heard a very nice cover version and this gives me an excuse to include both.

The cover is by Italian Jazz singer Maria Pia De Vito. It is sung in English, but the phrasing is clearly not that of a native speak. I think both version reveal strengths in each other.

The cover version is more up-tempo, and the performance is more exciting. I think there can be something about Joni Mitchell’s voice and performance that’s just a little soporific. But I love the Joni Mitchell piano part, and it has a slow, slightly somber, feel to it, that fits the song.

The relationship between verse and chorus is also very different in the two version. In the Joni Mitchell version I feel like there’s a tension that builds in the verses, and the chorus offers a break in the tension. The line about “get ourselves back to the garden” is one of the most pleasing and tender parts of the song. The lyrics of the song have a number of lines about letting go of consciousness and I think the chorus is a musical representation of that letting go. By contrast, I think Maria Pia De Vito is very strong on the verses, but never quite figures out what to do with the chorus.

In the previous post I mentioned the appeal of songs that succeed in their ambitions, however large. I have today more examples of opposite ends of the spectrum of ambition.

First, a completely charming song by the Mamas and the Papas, Once Was A Time I Thought. It’s short, only one minute long. Though if you’re like me you’ll end up listening to it two or three times in a row (I’ve just listened to it five times in a row, and I still think it’s great). It is a masterpiece of vocal arangement and harmonies. I love how it creates rhythm and syncopation by having the various parts just slightly out of step with each other. If you heard a single voice singing, it wouldn’t sound particularly syncopated or wordy. The impression of Gilbert and Sulivanesque wordplay is created in large part by the vocal arrangement.

I would also note that, for how lighthearted the song sounds, when I listen closely to the individual voices, it doesn’t sound like they’re having a fun time singing it. It sounds like they’re all trying really hard to get their parts right. There’s nothing wrong with a good illusion, or appreciating sheer craftsmanship, and the song works.

Secondly, a song that is a complete classic, and an astonishing triumph of ambition. Patti Smith singing Gloria. For me it’s almost the definitive example of a performer just announcing their presence to the world.

Part of what amazes me to think about, is that it’s track one, side one, off her debut album. Imagine being in 1975, having never heard of Patti Smith, seeing the famous Mapplethorpe album cover putting it on, and hearing that. It creates the rock experience of being simultaneously overwhelmed by a mood and tone delivered with complete authority, and being made complicit in the elation that the performer feels at their own power. One is both subject to the performance and cheering on it’s force.

Turn it up loud. The first time I heard it was latish at night, played loud on a good stereo and all I could think was, “this is so cool” and “I’ve never heard anything like this before.”

What makes a great song? What makes a song great?

How do we differentiate between songs that are sentimental favorites, and songs that we believe are “objectively” good?

If you someone asked you to play them five great songs, and someone else asked for five favorite songs, would you play the same songs?

How would you go about making an argument that one song is “better” than another? It’s easy enough in some case, but how do you compare, say, Is She Really Going Out With Him with The Weight? They’ re such different songs.

I don’t have any standards that I would even pretend are objective, but I can offer a couple of criteria that I think about when deciding if I would call a song great.
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Lazy

I don’t have much to say, except to recommend Lost In Arizona.

The song is by Stacy Phillips and Paul Howard on dobro and guitar respectively. Both are great players (Stacy Phillips, in particular, is a bit of Dobro legend, or so I have heard), and they clearly enjoy playing together.

I was listening to The Revolution Will Not Be Televised today, and it got me thinking about the problems of listening to music that far removed from its historical context.

I think it’s a great song, and a deserved classic, but listening this time I thought of the discussion of the Squeeze song — it has clever well written lyrics, and not many musical changes. But then, listening, there are lines that catch me by surprise:

There will be no pictures of you and Willie May pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run
or
There will be no slow motion or still life of Roy Wilkens strolling through Watts / in a Red, Black and Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving / For just the proper occasion.
or
Black people will be in the street looking for a brighter day. / The revolution will not be televised.

Each of those lines breaks me out of listening along, smiling at the cleverness of the writing. But the song as a whole isn’t shocking. I don’t know whether it’s possible for me to hear it with a sense of how it sounded at the time of its release.

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