Follow-Up

I’ve been thinking hard about what track I wanted to pull as a second track from the Couplings compilation that I mentioned earlier. There is a (seriously) fantastic song about a dispute over fishing rights between Newfoundland and Spain. Given my interest in pop music, and covers I ultimately decided on a version of the Gram Parsons’ song We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning that I think does something very interesting and quite successful with the song. The performance pairs Larry Stevens and Shelly Brown.

For purposes of comparison, let’s listen to the original version, with Gram and Emmylou Harris. My first question is, why haven’t more people covered the song, it’s a great song.

I think it succeeds nicely at a task that I associate with country/country rock — of taking a relatively simple set of lyrics with a central metaphor and making it poignant. It’s a familiar story of indulging in unwise desire, and knowing (or planning) to walk away in the morning. This is a relationship that cannot be allowed to turn into embers, it has to burn out and be swept away.

What’s interesting, in the two version, is how the different performances suggest different dynamics in the relationship. In the original it feels clearly like a song about adultery in which the narrators are, perhaps, unlikely, to act on the promise of the title and let go. It it is a song about two people denying the passion that exists between them (listen in particular to Emmylou’s verse, “Each time we meet we both agree / It’s for the last time. / But out of your arms I’m out of my mind.” — this does not sound like it will burn down to ashes.)

In the cover version the couple is older and wiser. They’ve had experience making bad decisions before; they aren’t taken as much by surprise by their own emotions, and sound like they might be able to enjoy each other and then walk away . . . until next time, of course. In that version I like to imagine that, rather than being adulterers, the couple are people who had been in a relationship before that have broken up, and know that they aren’t good for each other but nevertheless get back together occasionally. That version doesn’t completely fit the lyrics, but I like it better as a mood than the original Pop songs are always about being taken by surprise emotionally, and I find myself quite attached to the idea that these people, in this version, aren’t surprised.

I also feel like a more even duet than the original in which Gram Parsons continually sings over Emmylou until the verse that I quoted. Which is an excuse to quote what I think is a particularly nice bit from Alan’s liner notes for the CD as a project.

Almost all the cuts feature just two people and their instruments. This is arguably a more intimate musical form than even solo performance, for if music is language, and I have no doubt that it it, than two minds are required. Some of the pairings here are genuine couples, some are just musical partners and some have never performed together before.

In this case a very felicitous coupling indeed.

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