April 2010

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I’ve mentioned the Clumsy Lovers before but I wanted to mention my favorite of their albums (of the ones I’ve heard), Barnburner. It maintains a remarkably consistent and successful of good matured sarcasm about human behavior.

Take, for example, the first song on the album, “Good To Be Alone” a delightful satire of the impermanence and confusion of adolescent relationships.

The lyrics sketch a storybook romance (of sorts).

I once knew a girl she worked at the mall . . .
She looked so good in jeans. . . .
I remember when I’d sneak her home at 10 …
we once stayed out late / it was much more than a date . . .

The chorus describes the relationship falling apart for reasons that the character cannot figure out. The lead vocals say, “We changed in different ways” and “It’s good to be alone sometimes” but a quieter voice says, “deep down there’s a fire . . . maybe there’s a chance.”

The music is so happy that it never suggest deep seated anger or self-deception, but just someone who is emotionally confused, but still holding their head up. Perhaps it is even possible that they are not confused but are both happier alone, and still aware of a longing, deep down, that the relationship hadn’t fallen apart.

In the context of that mood they do a very nice cover of Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright (another Bob Dylan cover). I’ve always been somewhat uncomfortable with the more venomous side of Dylan’s songwriting, and this song is certainly in that register. Lines like, “I once loved a woman, a child I’m told / I give her my heart but she wanted my soul” or “Still I wish there was somethin’ you would do or say / To try and make me change my mind and stay / We never did too much talkin’ anyway” are so obviously one-sided they make you wonder what they woman in question thought was going on, and realize that the song provides no way of knowing.

In the Clumsy Lovers’ version the lightness of the music, and the comparison to the first song, plays up the essentially adolescent nature of the emotions in the song. The narrator is so one-sided that he can’t be taken as having ever been an honest partner in the relationship. That’s true about the original of the song as well, but I appreciate the way the Clumsy Lovers are able to smile at the song.

Things that I thought I would never say — “I have an amazing performance of ‘Wichita Lineman’ to share with you. This was sent to me by ben, who comments here. I should say that one of the things that took me a while to like youtube as a source of music, in addition to the poor sound quality, was the fact that it seemed most often used, or linked, for novelty pieces. It’s understandable, it takes so little commitment to look at a youtube video, and so often people open a window while they’re doing something else, that things that have a strong conceptual appeal stand out. They make an impression of themselves even through distraction. So, given that, I’m particularly fond of finding things that are great performances, and that capture some performer at the top of their game. So here is what ben sent me.

I was looking for versions of the Nick Cave “by the time I get to Phoenix” on youtube, and ended up looking at some versions of glen campbell performing Wichita Lineman. I realized I had never listened beyond the opening line, and never really realized how distinct and catchy the melody is. Here are two versions the first from the 60’s probably, and one from 2008. I enjoy both of them. This song certainly gets stuck in your head easily.

It is one of the most extreme examples of a complete and utter association between a performer and a song. Other people have done this song, but Glen Campbell owns it, which is part of why I’m happy to see that he is still having some fun with it.

If you’re like me and had never really listened to the song before, it’s worth starting with that first version that shows why it was a hit. There’s something a little hokey, though good, about the performance, but it’s a strong song. The second peformance, however, is the one that I think is truly remarkable. It’s so present, particularly for a performance of a song that he’s sung for 40 years. He seems genuinely like he’s having a strong, positive emotional experience playing that song at that moment. It’s happy, spot on and both his singing and guitar solos are so tight and feel like they come naturally out of the song. It has flourishes, it isn’t a modest performance, but it isn’t showy.

So there you go, a song that I never would have thought of, made available via youtube.


In the continuing series of posts (note, currently not all the appropriate posts have been tagged) on Tiger Beatdown about sexism, music, and cultural capital I saw this line today.

AMANDA: Because can I tell you? This woman on my blog the other day posted a comment about how the arguments that I make are less valid because of how my voice sounds. Because of how words sound when they leave my mouth. And because it sounds kind of like how a lady sounds.

This immediately made me think of a Laurie Anderson anecdote in which she talks about the voice synthesizers that she uses to, among other things, adopt a male voice in performances. It’s near the end of this description of traveling (about 4:20 in, after her description of having a good time in Israel setting off bombs, seriously).

It’s worth hearing it, but I’ve put a transcription of the relevant portion below the fold which should give a sense of the spirit of the piece.
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Last week I read a great rant about sexism in indie rock (via Yglesias) and since then I’ve been trying to decide whether or not to blog it, and what to say.

I was immediately interested in the piece for two reasons, first its simply a good bit of music writing and, secondly, I am aware that my music library contains a lot more music written and performed by men then by women and that there are some good reasons and some bad reasons for that fact. I have no doubt that the music industry as a whole is and has been deeply sexist and, the same time, that there’s lots of great music made by women that’s easily available.

But, as you can tell, that quickly becomes a conversation that’s too broad and too abstract to be helpful. Reading that post I was very aware that I am not in the target audience for either the post, or the music being discussed. I just don’t have that much interest in contemporary punk-influenced indie rock. On of my central ideas going into this blog is that it’s far too easy, when writing about music, to drift into generalities, and that I wanted to write with a focus on specific things be that specific songs or specific emotions or experiences of listening to music.

Today, Silvana posted a follow-up which helped clarify my thinking about the original post. One of the lines that had struck me as highly debatable was, “For me, [“All That Glitters”] was the ultimate piece of feminist music, more powerful than the songs that explicitly talked about feminism and feminists, than songs that talked about sexual assault, objectification, about the history of the struggle for women’s rights, about sex. This was a feminist song about music, about de-prioritizing men’s voices in music, about rejecting the music that men make as being kind of fucking boring.” That’s a strong statement. It’s memorable, and it makes the claim that sexism in the music industry isn’t just an incidental part of our culture but something that matters viscerally.
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I watched the movie version of About A Boy recently and one of the things that amused me was their choice of “Killing Me Softly” as the song that Marcus and his mother sing repeatedly throughout the movie. Separate from whatever emotional significance the song has, it’s an inspired choice because, as the movie makes clear, it’s almost impossible for an untrained singer to sing well.

It makes it remarkable that Roberta Flack made it sound so catchy. She makes it seem like it she isn’t doing anything fancy. There’s nothing particularly showy in the vocals, and she doesn’t over-emote, but she’s doing with every line, and almost every word in the song.

I mean, how do you sing a verse like the following while honoring the emotion of the song, without making it a syrupy mess.

He sang as if he knew me in all my dark despair
And then he looked right through me as if I wasn’t there
And he just kept on singing, singing clear and strong

She makes it sound easy. It isn’t my favorite song of hers but seeing it in the movie made me impressed with what she pulls off.

Which brings me to another song on the album, “No Tears (In The End)” which I am rather fond of and also draws on similar strength of Roberta Flack as a singer. This wasn’t a song that jumped out at me at first listening, but I got into when I was working on a 70s compilation a couple years ago, and it’s stuck with me.

It’s a funny song, because the verses are all about falling in love, and the chorus keeps wondering what will happen when it’s over. It has to balance the emotion of falling in love, with being just a little bit wary about how much this could hurt and Roberta Flack does it wonderfully with a light touch.

Look at the opening lines of the song:

I don’t want no tears in the end.
I don’t want no tears in the end.

You made an impression when I looked at you
I knew what you wanted I wanted it too.
If anyone had told me that things would turn out this way
I never would believe that you’d still be here today.

I don’t want no tears in the end.
I don’t want no tears in the end.

They’re almost pop cliches, but there’s something so reasonable and adult about the whole thing. She’s enjoying the romance and participating but not getting swept away by it. And what’s happening with the tenses in that verse? It’s all past tense until you get to “I never would believe” which brings the song up to the present. How long have they been together? It doesn’t feel like a life-long romance but it’s lasted long enough that she can be happy that things have gotten this far.

I’m still stuck where I started. The songwriting isn’t brilliant, it’s a competent pop song, and Roberta Flack’s singing doesn’t stand out for any one reason, but it’s perfect for the song.

As for About A Boy, it has it’s virtues, but I ultimately found the movie frustrating. It seemed like the main message of the film was, “being weird and quirky will make you unhappy and you should try to be more normal.” It may have superficially tried to honor the fact that the various characters had strengths that came out of their peculiarities but it felt like the movie couldn’t wait to force them all into essentially conventional forms of behavior.

Also, in case you haven’t heard it, here is “Killing Me Softly.”

Here’s a song I’ve been meaning to post for a while, Janis Ian’s Play Like A Girl about encountering casual sexism as a female musician.

It is a song that might feel slight if it weren’t for the fact that it’s so irresistibly happy, which may be surprising given the subject matter. The song is full of the pleasure of having reached a point in her life an career at which that isn’t a worry, and she can just play. The mood of the music isn’t even confrontational enough to about conquering adversity, it’s just about joy with a good natured dismissal of said sexism.

From a songwriting perspective it’s worth noting that the parallels that she draws between playing music and playing baseball area really effective. As the song is structured, when she was growing up she was told that, as a girl, she wasn’t cut out for either baseball or music. Now she’s a professional musician and, left unsaid, not a professional baseball player but that doesn’t mean that the people who told her that she shouldn’t play baseball were any more correct than the people who criticized her playing. That conclusion is made explicit when she sings “Don’t want to Elvis / Mikey Mantle or Babe. / this Isn’t a contest / I just want to make some music / have a good time while I do it.”

I got into an interesting conversation with DS over at unfogged about the songs discussed in this post. I will excerpt the back and forth below the fold, but it got me thinking about this blog.

Mostly I’ve been writing for myself, and I’ve enjoyed this blog as a chance to work on some themes about how I listen to music and what I like. But, as long the blog is mostly for me, I will have some motivation to write posts, but not enough to create time for it when my life is busy and tiring. But if this blog can also be a site for interesting music conversation that’s much more of a motivation. So, I’m going to try an experiment. I want to commit to writing at least three posts a week for the next two months and we’ll see if it changes the feel of the blog at at all. I don’t know what exactly I’m hoping for but I’m ready to try it and see what happens.

Let me also say that, while there have been a couple of comments in the last few days that I haven’t responded to, I am glad for each and every comment. I’m am also happy for everyone that reads the blog and particularly glad of those people that have managed to be at least as regular readers as I have been a poster. So, if you’re reading this, you’re invited to comment on anything that seems interesting and now is the time to have an influence on the blog. If there is anything that you want me to write more about, I’m sure I will be happy to have topics at hand as I try to pick up the pace on my end.

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I was excited to see that the album of the day today at all music is Failure.

See my thoughts on that album.

That seems like an auspicious beginning to the day.

Here’s another track that I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time.

A while back I picked up this Toni Childs collection knowing nothing about her*. It’s ended up working very well as a CD to listen to at work. It’s got a strong personality, she has an amazing voice, and it flows well.

I want to highlight on distinctly atypical but very good track, the (modest) hit single off her debut album, “Don’t Walk Away” which I think is a good example of 80s music done right.

It has the complete 80s production package and yet, she’s strong enough as a singer that it doesn’t bury her. She sounds young and like she doesn’t completely feel comfortable knowing how to assert herself and yet there’s an impressive intensity to her performance.

It also got me thinking about how there is something distinctly 80s about that style of having the vocals completely separated, not just from the music, but from the listener as well. The vocals are produced in a way that is neither intimate nor inflated. She isn’t close miked, but there’s almost know reverb on the vocals either. She isn’t singing in your ear, and she isn’t singing in a physical space either. It’s a vocal tone that’s powerful but suspended in space somewhere. It reminds me the production that they Eurythmics used so effectively.

I will post one of her later recordings at some point, but I need to decide which one.

RS has been talking up Chris Smither to me for a while, and he just sent me copies of two tracks off of Smither’s latest album Time Stands Still which are very good.

Chris Smither is an excellent songwriter and a very good musician and, I confess, I feel slightly stymied when I try to write about him. His musical style –a modest but well executed bluesy singer-songwriter style is not a precise combination that I listen to very often. For me the music just lulls me a little bit, and unless I pay attention I lose track of just how clever the lyrics are.

I was thinking about this when I read Holly’s recent post about John Hiatt and I think that post gets at one of the things that makes Chris Smither so good which is that, as an experienced songwriter, he doesn’t try to do too much. His songs aren’t clever for cleverness sake, they’re compact and, genuinely there isn’t a wasted word. So if you’re like me, and you tend to listen waiting for the performance to highlight some passage or refrain that captures the song, you can get all the way through without hitting a moment that signals, “here is the moment when I really said what I wanted’ instead the entire song says what it wants.

I don’t mean to be too hesitant. I like his songs, they just fall slightly through the cracks of my style for listening to a new song, so it takes a recommendation to draw my attention to it.

The songs that RS sent are the first and third songs on the album, “Dont Call Me Stranger” and “Surprise, Surprise.” The first plays with the form of the bluesy come-on song and turns it into an extended joke. When he sings a line like “come on baby, I think you’re ready. So am I.” it’s completely serious and also clearly humorous. Perhaps the joke is just that Chris Smither, who seems so thoughtful, can deliver the lines with a straight face.

The other song is also funny with a distinctly, and delightful, mean-spirited edge. It’s a song people losing money in the recent financial crisis, written without a hint of sympathy. It is addressed to the person who took great personal confidence from the state of their bank account or investments and imagines all of they ways in which their life could go wrong.

Are you worried about your money
‘Course you are, who wouldn’t be.
You thought that you were rich
then you turned on your TV.
You hear banks are failing, you start wailing
Ah it can’t be son the bank is gone
Off you dash to get your cash
Surprise, surprise, the money’s gone.

Ah do you think your baby loves you
‘Course she does but maybe not

And so it goes from there. The humor is, in part, in just how many ways can he find to twist the knife, how many variations on bad news can he deliver. The verses individually are good and carefully crafted, but taken together they build upon each other quite well.

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