August 2009

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Sometimes I upload tracks, with the intention of blogging about them, and never quite figure out the right thing to say. Recently, I was looking through that list of songs and found myself listening to Johnathan Richman’s The Morning of Our Lives and it absolutely killed me.

It’s a song which is little bit tricky to write about it because in many ways it represents the pinnacle of certain elements of Johnathan Richman’s style. To the extent those stylistic elements have their strengths and weaknesses it is an extreme example. But, listening to it again, I was reminded that, in the right mood it’s wonderfully emotional, direct, and touching.
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There were a couple of interesting links in the discussion to this post at unfogged about different versions of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.

A couple of people linked to this excellent article which documents a history of various versions of the song and tries to answer the question, “why did this particular Leonard Cohen song become so popular?”

(I can add to the list of covers this slightly bizarre version by Bono, off of the mediocre tribute album Tower Of Song).

Also, in a separate unfogged thread Bob McManus linked to a short video demonstrating the loss of audio fidelity caused by excessive compression.

A while back I re-watched, Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown which, in my opinion, looked like a much better movie once it was removed from the Quentin Tarantino hype machine that was going strong at the time it came out.

Among other things to like about the movie, the soundtrack is fantastic, and I went looking for the a copy of the theme song, of sorts, “Across 110th St” and discovered Bobby Womack as a great singer and songwriter about the difficulties of urban life. I’ll get to “Across 110th St.” in a separate post, but for now, two great songs from relatively early in his career that are a nice pair and show something interesting about his style.

From 1973, his cover of, Nobody Wants You When You’re Down And Out and, from 1975, Daylight. The first is a song about the ups and downs of life in music where sometimes you’re on top of the world and then it can all fall apart. The second is about that moment of regret when you’re heading home knowing that you’ve been out partying way past what was a good idea.

The first thing to notice is that they both strike a balance between distress and smooth soul. In both songs, the singer is mostly frustrated with themselves for having given into temptation. They have either known hard times, in the first song, or know that they’re heading for a fall, in the second song, but both of them are essentially about internal struggles. Contrast, for example, the famous Bessie Smith version (youtube) of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” where she’s both suffering a lot more that Bobby Womack does, and genuinely angry at having been abandoned by her friend. Both versions work; I like Bobby’s Womack’s move of, broadly speaking. turning the song from blues into soul.

The other interesting contrast between the songs is the way in which “Nobody Wants You When You’re Down And Out” takes a rougher tone. In part that just reflects the difference in the position of the two characters, but it also reflects a difference in his approach to narrative. “Daylight” has much stronger hooks, and Bobby Womack lets the verses fade into the background a bit, highlighting both the great riff, and the soaring line in the chorus, “Daylight has found me up again.” You could listen to the whole song and never feel like you have to pay attention to anything other than the riff and the chorus. “Nobody Wants You When You’re Down And Out,” by contrast, lingers on the details more. It’s impressive how easily he can pull off both styles. I feel like, ultimately, his focus as a singer is more on phrases than on narrative, but he can certainly hold a narrative song together.

Listening to both of them again, he is really a great soul singer.

I don’t have a favorite album. There are too many choices, and too many ways in which an album can be good for me to ever want to pick one favorite. But I can distinctly remember a time when I did have a favorite and I was reminded of that today.

In 7th grade my favorite album was Failure by the Posies. A choice that stands up rather well, if I do say so myself. It’s still my favorite Posies album. At that point the Posies were Jon Auer & Ken Stringfellow, just out of High School, recording in their parents’ house. According to Failure was recorded as a demo and Pop Llama liked it enough to release it as an album (on cassette). As they say in the liner notes to the CD version, “[W]e warn you that you are listening to a disc that was not only recorded in someone’s living room, on used tape at that, on eight tracks but was released inauspiciously as a cassette over a year and a half ago with the intention of selling a couple hundred copies to our friends and such. Little did we know, that like musical George Bailey’s we found ourselves unexpectedly blessed with darn near 10,000 friends. Fortunately, they didn’t all stay at once. Some of you may know that our house is rather small and gloomy and hardly the place one invites dignitaries. Which, if you have been so kind as to pay full retail and not hassle your record-store-cashier buddies for a discount, you are.”

As you can probably tell from those notes, they were clever, a little bit bored, and listened to a lot of music. As it turned out, they were great musicians as well. It is the classic story of rock and roll surprise success (though they never really rocked, and their success was ultimately modest). Failure is my favorite of their albums because it is the one in which they seem most relaxed in their ambitions. All of the other albums feel, to me, like they’re consciously trying to do something different, and it isn’t completely comfortable. Failure, by contrast, feels unselfconscious in a very positive way.

My favorite song, in seventh grade, was Under Easy, a sarcastic song about being frustrated with someone (a friend? or a boy/girlfriend?) who is wallowing in adolescent angst. Despite not being a particularly angst-ridden adolescent I identified with the target of the song.

They certainly weren’t above adolescent angst themselves. Take, for example, I May Hate You Sometimes. Some of the lyrics are almost painful, “I’m another one just like you, a human being.” but others are fantastic, like the opening, “Here we are, only been a couple of years, maybe longer.” That is a near-perfect opening line, particularly for someone just out of High School. “I don’t want to live up to your expectations / I don’t want to be the one to end relations / I may hate you sometimes, but I’ll always love you.” That was a line that made a big impact on me at 12. I think I’ve carried that around for a long time as an image of someone trapped in a non-functional relationship who has tied themselves completely in knots. It’s an easy emotion to empathize with.

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