September 2009

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I was thinking last night about one of the interactions that contributed to my deciding to start this blog. I had been thinking for a while that I wanted to force myself to do some music writing, when I happened to notice a contest in Sterophile (which I don’t normally read), inviting readers to submit a list of their top five “Great Art Songs of the Rock Age”. Of course I had to enter. Below is my entry which, predictably for a variety of reasons, was not chose among the List of Winners.

After the contest, however, I had a bit of a correspondence with John Marks about the contest. I’m sure I came across as slightly odd, but the whole exchange helped convince me that I was serious about wanting to do some writing about music. I do think that the entry holds up reasonably well, so I reproduce it here, with my thoughts after the fold.

The trick is limiting it to five. Though I was born in 1976 my musical center of
gravity, like yours, is in the 70’s.

To limit my list, I will focus on songs that’s virtues are emotional engagement
rather than cleverness or arrangement. These are all songs that bring me
instantly into their emotional space when I listen to them.

This does mean, inevitably songs that are somewhat tied to their performers,
hopefully this does not violate to strongly the rule “he nominated songs will
be judged … as songs, not as performances.” but some selection criteria is
required.

In chronological order:

1) “Annie’s Going To Sing Her Song” — Tom Paxton, 1970.

Tom Paxton is largely ignored these days, partially because he wrote a lot of
topical songs which haven’t aged well, but this is one of the best songs from
the folk revival.

“A drink for me, a drink for you; / You’re going to need a drink or two: ”

The song is amazing in its combination of mixed emotion and genuine love.

2) “Maria Beth├ónia” — Caetano Veloso, 1971

“Maria Beth├ónia, please send me a letter / I wish to know things are getting
better”

The soul of the song is in the musical and sonic shifts from the anxiousness of
the verses to then tenderness of the chorus, to the instrumental coda which
suggests both the distance of life in exile, hope, and, in the end, a sense of
ease in shifting from words to music.

3) “In The Back of a Car” — Big Star, 1974

“You know I love you a lot / I just don’t know should I not ?”

The best song about teenage love ever? About being alone in a car with a date,
struggling with one’s emotions, and not being able to figure out how to express
any of ones feelings.

I am fond of the demo recording released on the Beale Street Green collection,
which highlights the vulnerability in the song.

4) “Ain’t Life A Brook” — Ferron, 1980

“So I hope I’m not the kind / To make you feel obliged”

Emotionally powerful, and amazing handling of narrative. In a short song it
describes moods and experiences covering years.

5) “Love Among The Sailors” — Laurie Anderson, 1994

“and if this is the work of an angry God / I want to look into his angry face.”

Written in response to the AIDS crisis, it is both abstract and emotionally
powerful in its sense of concern and anger without either judgment or despair.
I wouldn’t have included on a list of top pop songs except, given the criteria
I have chosen, it is one best song that is most emotionally affecting.

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[I almost titled this post, “Guilty Pleasures” but this title is both more accurate, and more fun].

I recently read and enjoyed Rip It Up And Start Again (by Simon Reynolds. It’s a very good book, and worth discussing but, for now, I wanted to mention one line which caught my attention. This comment about Depeche Mode’s, Everything Counts:

The first sign of this newly committed Depeche came with the 1983 single “Everything Counts,” which combined hard electro beats, wisps of bleak melody, and clumsy if heartfelt anti-Thather sentiments: “The grabbing hands grab all they can . . . It’s a competitive world.”

I’m sure that caught my attention primarily because that was one of the few songs mentioned in the book that I was familiar with, and I thought that was a little unfair. Not inaccurate, mind you, I can’t deny that the song is clumsy, in some ways, and that Depeche Mode clearly lacked the interest in theory that bands like Scritti Politti and Gang of Four had, but I think it misses the strength of that song, which I’ve always had an affection for.

I think it’s a good example of a political pop song that has a phrase that resonates for reasons independent of its analytical powers. In this case the sentence, “Everything counts in large amounts” evokes in me a sense of double meaning between “count” as “matters” and “count” as “mathematical.” That line, independent of anything else in the song, brings to mind quite strongly the idea that when you get to large enough numbers of anything (dollars, people, trees, etc . . .) they both matter more than individuals do, but they also are appropriately analyzed by statistics and become depersonalized because of that. A million dollars is worth fighting over, and gets anybody’s attention, but it’s just in a different category than five dollars borrowed from a friend.

Today is my birthday and, in honor, a track from an album that has been given to me as a past birthday present.

For this year, a classic political rock song by Bruce Cockburn, The trouble with normal.

There really isn’t anyone else who wrote pop songs that were as wordy as Bruce Cockburn. This comes from a distinct phase in his career. He started out as more folky, the released a series of albums from 1980-86 that were heavily focused on political songs, and then moved into being a singer/songwriter who was political, but less single-mindedly so. I can see how this style of song gets old at some point, but he did it well. The first verse feels quite contemporary, though it’s easy to see it as a response to Regan and Thatcher in the early 80s.

Strikes across the frontier and strikes for higher wage
Planet lurches to the right as ideologies engage
Suddenly it’s repression, moratorium on rights
What did they think the politics of panic would invite?
Person in the street shrugs — “Security comes first”
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse
The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.

I was listening again, to an occasional pleasure, tracks from the Grace Jones Compass Point recordings. They’re just strange enough, that I wouldn’t listen to them all the time, but from the right perspective they’re awfully fun. I have a collection of recordings from the sessions in which she recorded her (consensus) two best albums Warm Leatherette and Nightclubbing. Island records sent her to the Compass Point studio in Jamaica, along with prducers Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare and a crack studio band of sessions musicians.

From that you got songs like Private Life with Grace Jones singing over what is just a great reggae track. Part of the pleasure is that it’s unusual to hear a non reggae singer working with a band of that caliber, in this case the Island records studio band.

Or, my favorite track from the collection, Love Is The Drug which, appropriately to the Roxy Music original, has less of an explicit reggae feel (though there is still a clearly reggae-influenced sinuousness to the music), but the band is still as much of a star of the song as Grace Jones.

It got me thinking about the role of a record label in doing A&R (Artists and Repertoire).
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