Recent Songs #4

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This week, new songs by familiar voices…kind of a boy’s club, sorry about that!

  1. “What’s That Perfume You Wear?” Jens Lekman. As usual the girl is “gone forever” by the time we enter the picture but her perfume lingers on like “the promise of something sweet that could never be.” The whole CD is sorta icky sentimental like that but in this case the slick dance-y production helps the song rise above it. Love the second verse about remembering his girlfriend coming out a hotel shower smelling of expensive shampoo. (The slick dance-y production works less well on the songs about male friendship, which is a brave and unusual topic to take on but they are also sorta icky sentimental in execution.)
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  2. “If We Were Vampires,” Jason Isbell. Gorgeous meditation on love and mortality that finds time for a joke about taking up smoking if you knew you were never going to die. “Your questions like directions to the truth,” what a heck of a nice thing to say to someone, and I keep singing the “Maybe time running out is a gift/I’ll work hard until the end of my shift” couplet in my head. It’s the standout track on the new album, which is better (in my mind) than “Something More than Free” but nowhere near “Southeastern.” There’s a familiarity about the themes (country boy out of place in the city, guy stuck in his dead-end town, teenage love not holding up to the passage of time) that the striking phrases and passionate singing don’t totally erase. On the other hand the songs where Jason tries most to stretch are the worst (“White Man’s World,” “Anxiety”). So that is not a good sign.
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  3. “Leaving LA,” Father John Misty. Third in a row here of disappointing new albums. A hipster railing at himself for falling in love was so much more compelling than a hipster railing at the world for craving entertainment to distract them from their empty lives. This song, though, has that combination of self-loathing and other-loathing with a fragile trust in love to redeem both tendencies that made “Honeybear’ such an interesting listen. I wouldn’t call this an interesting listen, necessarily–I find I need to take a deep breath before I put it on, here’s my brilliant friend again who’s going to talk my ear off–but the suffocation is part of the point I suppose. Is Father John really so famous that he can rail against being famous? The beginning of the beginning of the end of his career he sees toward the end sounds kind of accurate; I’m not sure how much of the rest of the ride I’ll stick around for. As we Philip Roth fans know, that you can anticipate every possible criticism of your work doesn’t make those criticisms any less valid.
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  4. “Some Things Just Don’t Change,” Little Steven. Here is a familiar but horrible voice. All right, it’s not that bad but there’s no question Southside Johnny sang this better back in 1977 (and probably yesterday at some beach casino show). Still, Steven wrote it and it’s a great lost song, worth hearing again. In Rolling Stone Steven summed up this sound “soul horns meet rock guitar” and wondered why he didn’t write more songs like it. Probably because it was so frustrating to watch his buddy Bruce churn out five of them as a warm-up exercise to writing the day’s “real” songs, and three of those five were as good as Steve’s best. Kind of thing has to take a psychic toll.
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  5. “Postcard from Paris,” Glen Campbell. Talk about icky sentimental! And those background vocals! But I first heard it after a couple of drinks and it just killed me. Holds up sober but may make you want to pour yourself a glass of something, it has that kind of stoic melancholy that’s a lightning rod for all manner of regrets not directly related to the lyrics. Written by John Denver and I will take it at face value and not indulge in my own icky sentimentality and bring in the Alzheimer’s backstory. I’m sure you can find that on another blog out there.

“Hurricane Party,” James McMurtry

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Can you love a song just for one line?

I do:

I don’t want another drink
I only want that last one again…

Speaking as a guy who enjoys a few drinks occasionally, that so much captures the experience. It’s not as much you want to get drunker, as you want to re-experience the transition to being drunk. But sadly you have to sober up to do that.

In this song the line is spoke by an old barfly at a bar in New Orleans. (I’m projecting the New Orleans part but that’s just the way I imagine the scene.) A hurricane is on its way, and for a few hours before there’s been a hurricane party at the bar. All those people have left for the safety of their homes but this guy can’t get himself to move, to return to his solitary house. But it’s not just inertia that makes him stay put. It’s also a desire to extend the moment, to ride a little longer on the excitement the impending storm puts into his life:

Just a fleeting sense of that rare suspense I once thought made the world go round

There was a great article in the New York Times Book Review a while back that spoke of how the Louisiana-born writer Walker Percy regarded hurricanes as therapeutic, beneficial. Percy’s point of view was they take people out of their everyday lives; they provide a focus and sense of purpose. It happens up here in the North with snowstorms, the shared experience of in a small way facing something uncontrollable and elemental. Fun and stimulating, right up until the moment your roof collapses.

I saw James McMurtry on a bill with Richard Buckner. It was a wordy evening. I hear James is great with a band but this night he was solo and let’s say the songs did not distinguish themselves melodically, although Buckner was the slightly more boring performer.

Those lyrics though! Like this from a more recent song, another internal monologue, this one by a guy driving to (hopefully) meet a lost love:

I’ve got a cup of black of black coffee so I don’t get lazy
I’ve got a rattle in the dashboard driving me crazy..

Every single car I’ve owned has at some point had a rattle in the dashboard that’s driven me crazy!

NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has Trump not gotten around to defunding them yet?) predicts an above average Atlantic hurricane season, with a potential for 5-9 storms. Mix up a drink, sit at the window, watch the sky darken. And most important of all, find a companion or two beforehand, because as James says here, there’ll be no one to talk to once the lines go down.

 

Fever Songs

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I had a fever last week. Literally: chills, night sweats, repetitive dreams, a general marshmallow-y sense of the world. This made me think of fever songs. The most famous eponymous ones, by Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell (as sung by Peggy Lee) and Bruce (as sung by Southside Johnny), offer a sexy, smoldering take. Smoldering, okay, there were times when I felt everything around me was melting at the edges, but sexy? The experience wasn’t entirely unpleasant (that marshmallow-y sense of the world, how good everyday health felt when the fever broke) but definitely not sexy. Neil Young claimed in the “Decade” liner notes he wrote “Down by the River” while in bed with a fever and I do hear that in the song, the spooky vocal, the droning guitar. Could never understand why he’d want to shoot someone who dragged him over the rainbow, isn’t that a good thing?,  but it probably made sense to Neil’s feverish mind. Roger Waters and David Gilmour’s “Comfortably Numb” (as sung by…which one is Pink?) mentions having a fever in the lyric and again captures the spaciness, the one step remove from reality, although as others have mentioned it seems more about drugs or facism or a drug that induces facism than lying in bed with a thermometer in your mouth waiting for your Mom to bring some orange juice. There are a few War on Drugs songs I’ve heard on the radio (WXPN in Philadelphia, my favorite station, fund raising right now if you are so inclined!) that would be a good backdrop to a fever, and I’m sure there are live cuts of Van Morrison in full yarragh mode repeating the same phrase 27 times that would pretty much replicate the way my mind was working around 1 am on Wednesday morning. I had a fever in college and went to a film class where my professor showed “Metropolis” while playing Philip Glass music loudly, as close to a Timothy Leary experience as I’ve ever had. Ranker.com lists 92 songs that have “fever” in the title but I’ve never heard of two-thirds of them so perhaps fevers are not as inspirational or compelling as songwriters think. I’m sure I’d recognize way more songs that have “sun” in the title.

Anyway, feeling better now, thanks.

“Redbone,” Childish Gambino

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It was my birthday last week and as one of his gifts my son gave me a mix tape of recent R+B songs, The Weeknd, Erykah Badu, mostly great but it’s this song that I keep coming back to. I must have played it at least ten times this week during my car rides home.

I vaguely recognized it from the opening of the movie “Get Out,” where I thought it was a lost Prince track: the funk, the aching falsetto vocal. And so maybe I’ve been thinking about Prince too, as I’ve played this, here on the year anniversary of his death. Big fan, mixed feelings. Hard not to feels some resentment when people you admire take what seems from the outside like the easy way out.  It may well not have been, and addiction is a disease, you tell yourself. And then something along the lines of, asshole.

Nothing’s simple, except maybe the note progression this song is built on. We hear it at the beginning and then over and over, like a classical music theme. What’s it all about? I had to consult my good friend the Internet to find the lyrics and with them came, unexpectedly, interpretation (sarcasm on).

Consensus it’s a guy talking about a girl who’s not paying him enough attention, his warning to her that she’s going to lose him entirely if she keeps it up. “Redbone” seems to be a slang term for a light-skinned black woman and not, as I originally thought, a cool reference to a 70’s one-hit-wonder band.

Maybe it’s about that. Or maybe it’s about a black man trying to make it in a white America where he feels unwelcome and rebuffed but not so much so that he’s going to stop trying. “If you want it/you can have it,” that sounds like he’s talking about himself, if you’ll accept me I’ll do what it takes to continue that acceptance and I’ll enjoy the rewards of them because I want those rewards and maybe I shouldn’t want them but why but why shouldn’t I want them?

“Stay woke” is the key phrase. “Stay awake” means be vigilant, stay alert, watch out for what’s coming. “Stay woke” implies what you’ve been watching out for has already happened and you’ve already learned the hard truths from that. Now the important thing is not to forget what you’ve seen and experienced, not to deny those feelings even if on a given day things seem to have improved. “Stay woke” is a state of perpetual vigilance, perpetual questioning, of enjoying the surface while waiting for the inevitable moment what’s underneath is revealed. And although that applies to a black man in white society (see “Get Out”), it doesn’t only apply there.

Me to my son: “I love that song Redbone on the CD you made. But what is he talking about, ‘neighbors creeping’?”

My son: “You might want to listen to that line again.”

Recent Songs #3

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  1. “A Little Crazy,” Nicole Atkins
    Nicole returns to her Neptune City sound and throws in a little Brandi Carlisle, as though she needed the extra histrionics. And it sounds great! Knowing that Nicole herself probably hates it and blames her record company and audience for forcing her to do what she does best takes away a little of the pleasure, but only a little.
  2. “Wasted on Fidelity,” Cameron Avery
    Hunky-looking guy with a Richard Hawley-like croon waxes in a Bryan Ferry-like way about how great long-term relationships can be: “I gave myself to the sure thing/The simple and the bored things.” What emerges is a rock star fantasy of fidelity that’s mostly based on watching his girlfriend pick out underwear but “lacy-covered solace” is a terrific phrase.
  3. “Answer My Text,” PWR BTTM
    As a glance at post posts will reveal I am a sucker for these bratty, heart-on-their-sleeve emo guys, as well as for songwriters who trust the material of everyday life to convey the big emotions. Thus an entire song about waiting for a return text and a grim prognosis: “I guess your heart’s on silent mode tonight.” Paul Westerberg would be writing songs like this if he was still twenty years old.
  4. “Hungry Ghost,” Hurray For the Riff Raff
    Alynda Segarra, the woman behind Hurray For the Riff Raff, sings, “I’ve been a lonely girl/But I’m ready for the world.” It takes nerve for a young songwriter to revisit that familiar rock-and-roll rhyme of “girl” and “world”! And then she doubledowns with Jim Morrison quote and boast that her blood is “running wild.” “Hungry ghost” is all her own, though. Best use of synthesizers I’ve heard in a while.
  5. “Jackpot,” Nikki Lane
    A fun one! Goodness knows we all need that sometimes. Love the syncopated guitar, the Viva Las Vegas quote, the understated-but-bursting-with-excitement vocal. Cover photo scares me, but that’s only because I’ve been watching the first season of “True Detective.”

 

“Beyond the Blues,” Peter Case

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Some rock critic once described a song as sounding like the singer had traveled a long way to deliver their message. (It was probably Greil Marcus, and probably about Bob Dylan, but I truly don’t remember.)  There are songs like that, with a sense of hard-won but weary wisdom, deep truth that’s extracted a cost in being acquired. For you, it may be any one of a number of songs from Hank Williams’s sturdy catalog. For me, this song fits the bill.

In the first verse the singer talks about a moment of connection with a street singer he happens to hear. In the final verse that street singer is long gone, probably dead, but his song lives on in the singer’s memory. The song is about perseverance, about not giving in to circumstance, about the necessary belief in a place in this lifetime beyond darkness and pain and the necessary struggle to get there. In the middle verse the singer reflects on how this message applies in his own life:

You and me darling, we took the long way around
Across the wide open country, past the heart attack towns
We hit the fork in the road where we all have to choose
Between darkness and light
Beyond the blues…

I love that phrase “the long way around.” (Co-writer Tom Russell must have liked it too, enough to name the album on which he covers the song after it.) We all want shortcuts, but we seldom get them and when we do they don’t always work out as we expected. Perhaps we’d be happier if we resigned ourselves to a more methodical design for living. Or as expressed in another Peter Case couplet, from another song:

Been on this road since I was two
Just found out that it don’t cut through…

That resonates for me. But then I’ve always been an effort-is-its-own-reward kind of guy, and also a you-can’t-make-your own-circumstances-but-you-can-choose-how-you-respond-to-them kind of guy. Both of those are in this song.

Peter Case. Always thought he was English. “The Plimsouls,” what kind of name is that for an American band? “A Million Miles Away” is a great song, though. I was quite enamored of Peter’s first, folky solo album in 1986. I gave it a listen last night and it holds up well. “Walk in the Woods” is like a male version of “Ode to Billie Joe.” I saw him play at a club around that time; what I mostly remember is he looked homeless. I liked the album this song comes from, “Six-Pack of Love,” a lot too, but haven’t kept up since except the occasional song I hear on folk radio (seek out ‘Beautiful Grind”). So I know maybe 20% of his ouevre. There are probably 10 other great Peter Case songs I may or may not ever get around to hearing. Sad for me, sadder for Peter, but perhaps hopeful in a general sense of the existence of undiscovered richness, of so much good stuff out there ready to be stumbled over just when you need it most. Maybe even, as the song says, from some random old man on a corner playing guitar with a rusty knife.

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