Songwriting

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Holly Hughes recently wrote (in the comments to this post):

I don’t think of myself as a Bowie fan, but then I can’t imagine what Bowie fans would be like. He’s such a chameleon, an almost Dadaist artist. Endlessly fascinating to me.

As a David Bowie fan, I thought I’d try to explain. I’ve written before about some of the things I appreciate about David Bowie, but it’s a good invitation to write about David Bowie in a broader sense.
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I’m hoping to do some blogging this weekend but, in the meantime, three items for the fourth of July.

First, Gretchen Peters at a Planned Parenthood fundraiser performing her song, “Independence Day” and talking about what it means to her. The person Gretchen Peters is both a little odd, it’s clearly a slightly awkward setting, but I think her introduction to the song is nice.

Second two songs about, uh, explosions, if you will forgive the entendre.

Eilen Jewell singing “Bang Bang Bang.” It’s a short song, just under two minutes long, but clearly a great performance piece. I discovered her when I was looking for female performers for my Country mix. I ended up using one of her Loretta Lynn covers, but this was also one of my favorite songs that I found during that process.

Finally, Nick Lowe’s sensitive cover of Elvis Costello’s, “Indoor Fireworks.” This is also a relatively new find; last fall I was listening to more Nick Lowe and it got me to look at his catalog again. The Allmusic review of The Rose Of England mentioned that track as a standout and I went looking for it. As it turned out that ended up leading me to make one of my favorite musical discoveries of 2011 but that’s a story for another time . . . hopefully this weekend.

I was talking to somebody today who happened to mention a person they new named, “Lonnie” and I immediately thought of the Steel Dan song, “The Boston Rag” which has the lyric, “Lonnie swept the playroom / And he swallowed up all he found / It was forty-eight hours til / Lonnie came around.”

It’s far from the best or my favorite of their songs, but it’s still memorable. It occurred to me that one of the criticisms of Steely Dan is that the musical genre they’re working in (sometimes described as “lite jazz-funk”) isn’t very interesting. Which may or may not be true but it’s an important point in favor of Steely Dan that their songs are far from generic. The songs are quirky and vivid and their songwriting is very rarely lazy — there may be recognizable Steely Dan themes, but their songs don’t descend to cliche and that’s a big part of what makes them a classic and important band.

Apologies again for the lack of posting. I got really busy starting last July, and it’s only now starting to slow down (and I’m just starting to catch up). But, for my loyal readers, I do have something new to share. A new mix of county singer/songwriters, that I’m quite excited about. Extended thoughts below the fold but I’m definitely curious to know what people make of it. A lot of this music is new to me, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks listening to a bunch new music to work on this, and I’m happy with how it turned out:

Unconventional Country:
1: Walkin’ — Willie Nelson
2: Honkey Tonk Girl — Eilen Jewell (by Loretta Lynn)
3: Saint Anthony With The Broken Hands — Katy Moffatt
4: Hard On Equipment (tool for the job) — Corb Lund
5: West Texas Waltz — Butch Hancock
6: Burning The Toast For You — Suzy Bogguss (by April Barrows)
7: Wander — Paul Burch
8: Listen To The Radio — Kathy Mattea (by Nanci Griffith)
9: Anyhow, I Love You — Lyle Lovett (by Guy Clark)
10: Please — Mary Gauthier
11: Glasgow Girl — Rodney Crowell
12: Six Nights A Week — Peter Case (by Chris Gaffney)
13: Gimme A Ride To Heaven, Boy — Terry Allen
14: Mystery Train Part II — Steve Earle
15: Out In The Parking Lot — Guy Clark
16: Sittin’ Still — Andrew Jacob Holm
17: Boxcars — Joe Ely (by Butch Hancock)

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Earlier this year I picked up a Lefty Frizzell collection after ben introduced me to him via this video.

He’s amazing.

Part of what’s astonishing about listening to a collection like that one is just how consistently good he was in his peak. Of the 34 songs, 30 of them are from 1950-59, and it’s just one great song after another. I had head songs like, “If You’ve Got The Money I’ve Got The Time” and “It’s Saturday” before, and I expected them to be good, but I wasn’t expecting that it would be just one great song after another.

But let me look at one of the hits first.

The other day I was listening to Shine, Shave, Shower (It’s Saturday) and I was struck by a sense of awe. For a moment it just boggled my mind to think that somebody wrote that song (credited to Jim Beck and Lefty Frizzell). It just seems like one of those songs that should have always existed but, in fact, somebody had to write it. I feel like, had that been the only thing the wrote (and Jim Beck is credited on most of Lefty Frizell’s early hits) that should be enough to secure their place in cultural history.

The lyrics are good — they feel like throwaway lines, but they’re actually remarkably efficient, getting a lot of punch from a line like, “my sweet baby’s gonna show me around” but that tune is so catchy. And Lefty Frizzell sings it so well. Listen to how well he keeps the rhythm solid without ever overdoing it. He has the ability to put just a little extra stress on a breath to give a beat without either interrupting the flow of the line. Or listen to the difference in the final lines of the first verse and chorus (“‘Cause my sweet baby’s gonna show me around” and “Because tonight is Saturday night”) the first is all easy vowel sounds, the second emphasizes the repeated “t”‘s ( “Because tonight is Saturday night“) but he makes both of them flow easily. They have a different energy but if you aren’t listening closely it wouldn’t be obvious why. Lefty Frizell makes it sound like he just sings each line exactly as it has to be sung, and never seems flashy in his singing, but he’s also attentive to the way that each of the lines sounds different.

Living Room Songs — Track 14: “Buckin Horse Rider” by Corb Lund from Five Dollar Bill

Corb Lund is someone whom I will try to promote whenever I have a chance. I think he’s great and, in general, I like his songs better the more I listen to them. His songs are frequently immaculately crafted and often clever, but that never gets in the way of them feeling true.

This is definitely an example of that, a song written from personal experienced, but one in which every line is perfectly constructed but in an understated way.

This song was actually important in helping me clarify my sense of this mix. Very early on I knew that I wanted to include something by Corb (of course) and probably something off of Five Dollar Bill. As I was listening through the album to select a song I realized that several of the songs that I liked, such as “(Gonna) Shine Up My Boots”, had drums on them and that just didn’t feel right. So I went with this track partially because it didn’t have any drums and then, thinking about it, I realized that, of course people don’t generally bring a drum kit when they’re going to play music at somebody’s house, and that was when I really started thinking of this as “living room songs.” The irony is that the person who’s invitation got me to put this mix together is a drummer, so I feel slightly bad about then making a mix with no drums on it.

This is a good opportunity to say that I recently found a complete Corb Lund house concert on youtube starting here. It isn’t necessarily his best performance, the setting is very casual, it can feel low-energy rather than intimate, and some of the songs suffer from the absence of a band. But I really liked hearing him perform earlier material next to more recent songs and it made me like the newer stuff better than I had. It also brings the anti-war elements of the songs from Horse Soldier to the surface in ways that I appreciate.

Appropriately for this track his performance of “Buckin’ Horse Rider” is great and very personal and if you watch the video to the end he introduces the next song, from Horse Soldier, “Student Visas” and both the introduction and the song have more raw emotion than the album version. His singing on the chorus, “There ain’t no fun in killing folk and I don’t want to do no more.” is heartbreaking.

Having just encouraged everybody to buy an album in my last post, I have another one to recommend.

I have mentioned before that, when I get a new album, my general approach is to listen the first couple of times in very general way. I try to get a sense of the mood, themes, and high points of the album so that gradually I learn what I should be paying attention to, and figuring out both the best mood and perspective to appreciate the album, and also how it works.

I just got “Blood and Candle Smoke” by Tom Russell (not to be confused with Tom Rush). It’s the first album of his that I’ve heard, and it’s great and one of the things that most impresses me about the album is how brilliantly sequenced it is, and how the album progresses. Listening to it felt like one of the most surprising, involving, and emotional first listening that I’ve had in a long time, because the album took me through the process that I described as it progressed. Listening to it I felt like, without me working at all, it was teaching me as the album progressed how to listen to it.

Putting it on for the first time, the first couple of songs were good, but felt just a little bit obvious. The told stories — interesting ones, and well crafted, but they didn’t surprise much. I found myself feeling a little bit disappointing, at that point, that it seemed well crafted but not as smart as it could be, it seemed like it just lacked the extra effort that takes a song from competent workmanship to a performance. Little did I realize that that they were just setting me up.

The most important way in which the album progresses is the relationship between Tom Russell and the band. AMG describes the production on this album as being different from anything he had done before and so it’s particularly impressive that it succeeds so completely:

Co-produced with Craig Schumacher, and cut at Wave Lab Studios in Tucson with members of Calexico and others, it sounds like nothing else in his catalog. Russell played his guitar and sang live with the band, providing little direction and allowing the musicians to open up a natural space around him. Instrumentally, this collaboration employs everything from mariachi and jazz horn sections, reverbed electric guitars, organic acoustics, and miniscule drum kits to hand percussion, marimbas, accordions, talking drums, Vox organs, and Rhodes pianos. The backing and duet vocals by songwriter Gretchen Peters add warmth, depth, dimension, and presence to Russell’s songs.

However it was that Russell invited the band to be willing to take creative authority on some songs they more than rise to the occasion. In the first half of the album they provide excellent backing for Tom Russell with plenty of power on “Santa Ana Wind” and drive on “Criminology” but as you go deeper into the album they feel more and more like full creative partners, and the songs become less story-like, less linear, and more directly emotional.

Take, as an example, “Mississippi River Runnin’ Backwards” the song almost exactly at the mid-point of the album. You can hear some of the progression that I’m talking about within the course of the song. The song is about New Orleans after Katrina. It starts with a quotation from “Old Man River” and a scene-setting opening verse which work but, again, feel constructed (and make me think back to Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927″) but the song really lands (like a punch) when it gets to the chorus for the second time, when the backup-vocals answer his call of “everybody sing” and the band plays with so much energy and so much ache at the same time, it pays off the emotional promise of the verses. At that moment the song is great, with no qualifications necessary.

I will warn you that, for some reason, the .mp3 conversion isn’t kind to the song. The texture and depth of the music are lacking and, in particular, the piano is rich sounding in the original recording and thin and slightly tiny in the .mp3. But, really, buy the album — it’s worth it. It’s good and it’s surprising. What more can you ask for?

As one last note, I was realizing that it would be convenient for me to try to finish up the Living Room Songs post by Thanksgiving. So I will pick up the pace on that, so I encourage everybody to keep checking in.

Update: Link to song added.

Speaking of making mixes: when I was working on the second mix I ever did, an 80s mix that, with minor changes, I am still quite happy with, I was faced with a choice. I wanted to use something off the Billy Bragg reissue Back To Basics. I’d gotten it a while back, I didn’t know much about Billy Bragg and he wasn’t somebody that any of my friends were listening to. I hadn’t particularly liked the album, but I was starting to realize that there were some real gems.

I was ultimately trying to decide between, “A New England” and From a Vauxhall Velux.” I picked “A New England” and it was a success — that was one of the songs that people to whom I gave the mix tended to single out as one of their favorites. I later found out that it’s one of Billy Bragg’s more anthologized song, showing up on a variety of “80s independent music” or “80 alternative” collections, and with good reason. It’s smart, sharp, and directly emotional in an affecting way.

I wanted to speak up for “From a Vauxhall Velux,” however, which has always struck me as an extremely funny song. I can’t quite tell you why I think it’s so clever, but it has a couple of lines that strike me as just sarcastic perfection.

Start with the title of the song, it’s about a large family car from the 60s and the song is about awkwardly having sex in said car. From the opening lines, you know that this is not going to be a great romance, “She said, ‘Do these seats fold down?’ / I said, ‘If you pull that handle.'” That isn’t necessarily funny, but it’s already apparent that the song will be about logistics rather than emotion. And there are more logistical problems to overcome, “Her mother read her mail / And her Dad was a Policeman / Which I must say worried me / But some things have just got to be.” Which sets up my favorite line from the song, “So we passed very fast like ships in the night / Or cars in a contraflow system.”

What makes this so good? First off the internal rhyme of “passed/fast” gives a burst of speed and syncopation to the line which propels you past the familiar metaphor of ships into the night and into the modern equivalent. The entire thing seems to suggest that it would be overly romantic to suggest that they “passed like two ships in the night.” Ships may not communicate at all but, at least, they tend to not pass each other “very fast” and they aren’t part of an anonymous crowd like cars on a freeway. It becomes just about the least romantic metaphor possible. It calls to mind the cliched shot from movies of endless stream of headlights signaling urban alienation. But it manages to be supremely sarcastic without being cruel. It doesn’t say anything about the woman that he’s involved with, just that neither of them were interested in anything more than a little excitement.

Looking on youtube I see a video of a performance around the time that the song was released. You can see that Billy Bragg clearly had a lot of experience playing pubs and knowing how to keep the attention of an audience. He also presents a familiar image of the young artist who is creative, producing and performing good work and still not quite sure where it will lead. I get the feeling from the video that he’s in the position of getting positive reaction to his music but not knowing what of it will actually make an impact. He looks great, handsome, smart, and really personally present in the performance. Seeing that gives me a different sense than the album of why his fans would be so committed to him. I will also note that the performance of Which Side Are You On from the same concert is vastly better than the album version which never felt very strong to me.

Sitting in my (metaphorical) pile of music to blog about are a couple of “from the archives” releases of early live performances by musicians that went on to become quite famous, that I’ve picked up within the last 18 months. Notably the Joe Jackson BBC recordings, and the recording of David Bowie in Santa Monica are both very good. Just last week, however, I picked up the recent release of a 1991 Tori Amos concert which is remarkable as a performance and makes me re-assess her early work. Listening to them, it is completely unsurprising that she went on to become a star.

The recording covers many of the songs from her debut album and took place seven months before the release of that album. So the material was all new to the audience, and it was her first experience performing it in front of a large crowd. The performances have, as the cliche goes, the energy of somebody who has now expectations and nothing to lose. As she writes in the liner notes, “At the ’91 show, I though, well, I’m nowhere anyway. So let’s go out and give it my best show and if it doesn’t work, well I’m still nowhere when I leave.” Hearing them makes me more impressed with her songwriting, and her investment, both creatively and emotionally in the songs.

The first thing that stands out is that she doesn’t pull an punches. Her piano playing is loud and aggressive, her singing is uninhibited. That, by itself, is no small thing. It’s one thing to write songs based on intense personal drama, it’s another to perform them without hesitation or embarrassment, and still something else to be ready to perform those songs and take over a room of 2,000 people. The second thing that’s clear is that she worked on those songs for a while and that it’s strong material. As I said I think the Glen Campbell thread you can tell the difference between a strong performance which reveals limitations in the material and one in which the song proves itself to be solid enough to support that energy or emotion without strain.

Start with “Precious Things.” The piano playing is physical and forceful, and when she gets to the line, “He said, ‘You’re really an ugly girl / but I like the way that you play”” or “I want to smash the faces of those beautiful boys” there is genuine touch of (emotional) violence.

I also find the chorus to be effective in this version of the song.

These precious things / Let them bleed /Let them wash away
These precious things let them break their hold over me

I don’t have a sense of a literal meaning but, I think of the passage from Yeats that Ferron uses as an epigraph for Shadows On A Dime in which he describes the In A Vision, Yeats describes a state between the death and rebirth of each soul, when the spirit engages in a process of “In the Dreaming Back the Spirit is compelled to live over and over again the events that had most moved it; there can be nothing new, but the old events stand forth in a light which is dim or bright according to the intensity of the passion that accompanied them. They occur in the order of the intensity of the passion that accompanied them . . . the most intense first, and the painful are commonly the most intense, and repeat themselves again and again. . . .”

It evokes someone working though intense emotions to drain from them their overwhelming power and control over the memory.

Or consider, “Leather.” I don’t think it’s as strong a song, and I think that it does have some weaknesses revealed in that performance, but it’s still an admirably nervy performance. Start with the introduction in which she says that she was told, “if you perform that song you’ll have no career” and remember that this is months before her album would be released. She can’t know at that point that things will, in fact, work out remarkably well, she just has to commit what she’s doing. Her performance doesn’t hide or sugarcoat the emotionally ugliness of the situation described in the song.

Also, it does put a different emphasis on the opening lines, “Look I’m standing naked before you / Don’t you want more then my sex” when it’s being performed live and she is standing there on stage singing that. That’s not a neutral opening. That said, the performance makes me think that lines like, “I could just pretend that you love me / The night would lose all sense of fear / But why do I need you to love me . . .” feel like cliches. No matter how much someone may mean that when they write or perform those lines, it isn’t the sort of verse that any singer can own. It’s too generic a sentiment (contrast with the verses on “Precious Things”).

Finally, it’s interesting to compare both of those songs to the album versions (“Precious Things“, “Leather“). I like the live performance better, but I think the album version have power in a different way. The live versions are more forceful, but the album versions are, in a way, more intimate. They aren’t more revealing but, by dampening the emotional intensity, they’re easier to live with. You can listen to them repeatedly without them necessarily making an emotional demand on you as a listener. Beyond that, putting them into a different, more moderated, emotional register creates an effect that is very loosely, gossipy. There’s a feeling of, “can you believe that I’m telling you this” which is (very imprecisely) flirtatious. I feel like the album versions create a relationship in which the performance says to the listener, “you are somebody that I trust to share this with” whereas the live performance says, “here’s what I have to say; deal with it.”

I admire how much of a powerhouse she is in the live performance but the contrast between that and the live versions also makes me think that her success was well earned. In both cases I feel like the performance is crafted to take full advantage of the occasion, and those two occasions are different. That’s also why I say the live performance makes me reassess the album — it’s different to hear it as making very conscious choices about presentation and know that she is capable of bringing far more energy to those songs.

Deft

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:

(chorus)
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.”

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