Recent Songs #8

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A dip into my Q1/Q2 Spotify playlists:

  1. “Beginners at Best,” Tullycraft. I love these guys! Sure, a lot of the songs sound the same, sort of breathless-bratty-twee with clever lyrics about being in various degrees of love, and I don’t think even they would consider themselves essential (they named an album “Lost in Light Rotation”) but fun. This sounds like a song about young, hesitating love happening to people not so young, but I could be wrong. Better not to worry it too much and take pleasure instead in the way the lead singer tosses off the words “Jinx…light.” (I’m not sure what that means either.)
    ***
  2. “Downtown Lights,” Frankie Lee. A song that sounds like a thousand other songs (with minor variations) and tells a story we’ve heard before (with no variations). Our hero has been whipped by the big city and is going back to where he came from. Hearts will be broken in the process! But I like the slow sway of it and Lee’s sweet voice where we’d expect to hear someone like Waylon Jennings. The singer says there’s nothing left on Memory Lane, but this song kind of is.
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  3.  “I Wanna Keep Yr. Dog,” illuminati hotties. I am developing quite a crush on these guys, who are really not guys at all but one woman, Sarah Tudzin, who will live to regret her band name. “Paying It All Back” was one of my faves of 2018 and this single rocks just as hard. It has one of the best song premises I’ve heard in a while: she wants to break up with a guy but can’t because she’s grown too attached to his dog. I have a friend who was going to have a no-fault divorce until he and his wife couldn’t agree to dog custody and had to bring in lawyers! There is of course an Iggy Pop reference and Sarah even has a public playlist on Spotify of other dog songs. I like someone who does their homework.
    ***
  4. “Randall Knife,” Steve Earle. I’d heard the song, written by Guy Clark, before, but Steve’s version from his new album of Guy cover versions destroyed me. Just beautiful writing about fathers and sons and life and grief. “I’d cried for every lesser thing/Whiskey, pain and beauty.” Play it on Father’s Day and try to hold back the tears. (I will be on a plane on Father’s Day and out of respect to fellow passengers will not take my own advice.)
    ***
  5. “Pearl Cadillac,” Guy Clark. Saw him perform this on Saturday Night Live and was so impressed. That shredding guitar! That Prince-like vocal! It sounds so sexy but the lyrics could as well be addressed to the singer’s mother as girlfriend. “Late nights, fussing and fighting at home/I’m sorry for the things I did wrong.” So play this one on Mother’s Day, and maybe follow it up with Chance the Rapper’s “Sunday Candy.”
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“Northsiders,” Christian Lee Hutson

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My son said to me, “Here’s a song that me and my friend decided was perfect for Dads.” They were right, but hey, they must have liked it too or else why were they listening in the first place?

It sounds like Elliott Smith, or the Milk Carton Kids, hushed vocals, acoustic guitar. (My son said Sufjan Stevens.) The first verse describes a high school meeting involving drugs and lying about drugs and kindness and instant connection. “Nothing’s going to change it now,” the singer says, and we’ve all felt that sense of arrival, that anti-scavenger hunt feeling of finally finding what you didn’t even know you were looking for.

Christian describes the relationship like this:

Morrissey apologists
Amateur psychologists
Serial monogamists
We went to different colleges

Which is just about perfect and probably the Dad-bait my son was referring to: the details, the unexpected off-rhyme. They are moving in different directions, but she tells him they will always be together in a way, branches on the same tree. The singer takes some comfort in that: “Nothing’s going to change it now,” he repeats, no one can take away what they shared.

There’s a missed chance at a last hurrah and then…the woman dies. Car accident. Again, the matter of fact details: “You were probably reaching for a cigarette.” You don’t expect death in pop songs, and I have to say this one caught me off guard. I winced at the line, “I hope it was an instant death.”

The singer allows himself a glimpse of an alternate happier future where they get back together, share a life getting fat in the countryside. “It’s crazy how things shake out sometimes,” he says, pulling himself back to reality, and then repeats: “Nothing’s going to change it now.” This time meaning, tragically, what they have has been frozen by death, will never get a chance to grow or change.

Which isn’t true. Our relationships with the dead change all the time. But Christian is young, he’ll find that out. In the meantime, heartbreaking song. Enjoy, Dads everywhere!

 

“Coming Up Close,” til tuesday

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Home is the place you haven’t to deserve, as the poet says (Robert Frost, specifically). Meaning, there’s stuff in life you shouldn’t have to earn. Which I’m not a big fan of, given that I pride myself on having earned everything. Which I realize is an idiotic and self-indulgent point of view. Call it privilege, or grace, or fate, but there are things that just happen. We remember the bad ones, but there are plenty of good ones too.

We were driving home from school the other day with my sophomore-year son. He was filling us on on his life, his academics, what he’d been listening to lately. He provided the most detail about the last, controlling the car radio with his iPhone, but that’s sort of the family we are. “Play something about coming home,” I asked, and being a smartass he put on Gil Scott-Heron, “Home is Where the Hatred Is”:

Home is filled with pain
It might not be such a bad idea if I never, never went home again

Not what I had in mind! So as a corrective I requested the first song that came to mind with a more sentimental view of home, til tuesday’s “Coming Up Close”:

Coming up close
Everything sounds like welcome home
Come home, and oh, by the way
Don’t you know that I could make
A dream that’s barely half-awake come true

A beautiful song: perfect melody, great twangy guitar riff, Aimee Mann’s smooth, emotionally open vocal. (She stayed smooth but lost the emotional openness later.) And it reminded me, like I wanted it to remind my son, of being home during the summers while I was at college, familiar places, familiar faces, slipping back into being a person I wasn’t anymore, the melancholy of knowing it was all temporary.

Only, as I was listening, it struck me the song isn’t about that. It’s about two friends or lovers who may not be either of those for very much longer having an evening where it feels like those are the only things that matter. The singer isn’t even home–she’s in Iowa, driving a borrowed car, staying at a hotel!

So why will this song always say something special to me about going home? Maybe because it was playing during those summers I was home. Or maybe because its bigger feeling, of finding if only for a little while mooring in a world where you feel uncertain, is more important than the details.

To me. In this case. But like Robert Frost says, you don’t have to earn everything, not even a song interpretation.

“Ditch,” Sam Baker

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Thanks Spotify! Their robot geniuses offered this up to me, the best Bill Morrissey song I’ve heard since Bill drank himself to death at 59 in 2011, which I missed when it came out in 2013.

A little research shows that others didn’t miss it: Rolling Stone said it was “hilarious and tragic” and named it one of the best country songs of the year, Robert Christgau offered one of his cryptic appreciations of the album it came from. NPR covered Sam Baker’s sad and fascinating backstory, which has to do with a bomb on a bus in South America, and is worth seeking out.

It’s a simple song, a folky strum, all of one minute and fifty-three seconds long. A guy describes his construction job laying pipe in ditches in the “pouring-ass” rain. The boss is a shit, the crew are a bunch of stoners, and he doesn’t have a high opinion of job site safety standards. Yet his attitude is positive:

I am crawling back down in the ditch today
I got a crazy-ass wife
got a baby on the way
glad I got work
glad I got pay
I’m crawling back down in the ditch today

Later he’ll mention one of the reasons his wife is crazy-ass, which is she thinks she and Taylor Swift were separated at birth. He regards this as well with an affectionate shrug.

Unlike Rolling Stone I don’t hear tragic, unless you consider it tragic that people have to work construction jobs, in which case you should probably get out a little more often from whatever office where you spend your days. I do hear: tenderness, resignation, acceptance of diminished expectations and how mostly that’s a blessing, a “how the hell did I ever end up here” sense of wonder. The song sounds like someone in the middle of an all that’s only going to get more complicated, coming up for a quick gulp of air before going under again. As I listen I find myself thinking of a young relative of mine I don’t know very well but follow on Facebook who has a 13-month old baby, how even her happiest posts have a feel of exhaustion and struggle. I find myself thinking of that old cliche, life is hard, but you don’t have to be.

Still pissed at Bill Morrissey for drinking himself to death at 59, though. Alcoholism is a disease, not a choice; addicts hurt themselves worst of all. Still pissed. For the record I am privvy to no actual medical information that lists that as the cause of death, but one just knows such things.

“Old Fashioned Hat,” Marissa Mulder with Nate Buccieri

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Here’s one of the most Tom Waits openings I’ve ever heard in a song not written by Tom Waits: stark piano chords, a voice with just the right touch of amused resignation, these lines:

     Summer went the way of spring
     Winter’s waiting in the wings
     And we haven’t saved anything
     That’s all right…

But the rent is paid and there’s still a little money left and the two lovers in the song decide to make a night of it, head down to their favorite bar and play some songs on the jukebox (seven plays for a dollar, I want to go to this place!) They are young but not that young and they have been together for a long time: “I know your figure like my own,” the woman says. (The song is a duet.)

Tonight though there’s a difference: one is wearing a new hat. I’m not big on hats personally (I like baseball caps, but on baseball fields) but for whatever reason, the mood or the drinks or the songs playing on the jukebox, it causes the other to see their partner anew:

     And you look like a stranger
     In that old-fashioned hat
     I’ve got a pocket full of change
     And I don’t want to go home yet…

You can’t plan those nights, when the familiar seems unfamiliar but in a good way, and you wish you could slow down time just a little but know you can’t so while you’re enjoying you make a mental note, remember this, remember this, because you know there will come a time later when you’ll need it. Billy Joel also wrote a great song about this feeling, “This Is the Time.”

I stumbled across this song looking for cabaret shows to go to in New York over President’s Day Weekend. Marissa won’t be playing then, but she is a Tom Waits fan. She recorded an entire album of his songs, including word-for-word recitations of Tom’s between-songs patter, which may actually tilt over from fandom into obsession.

The song itself was written back in 2007 by someone I don’t know much about, Anais Mitchell. Her version is too fast and not a duet. It works better as a duet and a Valentine’s Day reminder to appreciate what we love best in the ones we love but also be open to swerves and surprises, even if it’s just an uncharacteristic article of clothing like a hat confidently worn. Hopefully not one with a feather, but the point is you don’t always get to choose.

Rock and Roll Never Forgets #1

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Recent visits from old friends:

  1. Willie Nile at City Winery Boston, 12/29/18

There were a bunch of these guys, Willie, Elliott Murphy, David Johansen, Bruce before he became mega-famous, where if you lived in the tri-state in the late 70’s and were interested in rock and roll at all, you knew them and loved them. It was back when the radio would play such stuff, and I remember if I heard Willie’s “Vagabond Moon” I’d be doomed to spend the rest of the day singing it to myself, usually in an even more exaggerated Dylan-esque inflection than Willie. (I tried this out the other day and it still holds true.) We were certain they would all go on to be superstars.

Well, we know now that except for Bruce they didn’t, but as I’ve remarked previously it does the heart good to know that some of them are still out there rocking away despite it all: the record company ripoffs, legal problems, band problems, substance abuse problems. Willie put on a terrific 2-hour nonstop show, and a measure of how good it was is that I recognized one song in the first 45 minutes but still enjoyed myself. Bass-drums-guitars, a few piano ballads, rousing choruses…this still, miraculously, works! I wish more people did it.

The best of the new, a bit-too-politically-conscious for my taste songs was called “Children of Paradise.” He did “Sweet Jane” and a rocking version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” as the last two songs in the set, both great. He had enough of a sense of the moment to play a rocking version of “Auld Lang Syne.” He was generous but not over-generous with giving his much-much younger band solos, and brought on an old bandmate who lives in the area to play on a few songs. The old bandmate looked like someone’s accountant but wailed on guitar. And I got to show my son that a 70-year old guy with talent and attitude and I assume a good physical therapist (those kicks!) can still bring it. Not dead yet!

2. “Big City Cat,” Steve Forbert (memoir)

Steve was another one of those late seventies tri-state area legends, and it’s funny looking back that we didn’t think twice about hearing “Going Down to Laurel” or “It Isn’t Gonna Be That Way” alongside the Ramones or Talking Heads on the radio. In this book, which I devoured over Christmas week, Steve writes about hearing those bands and loving them, feeling like he deserved a place at that and not just the folk music table, going down to CBGBs and auditioning. You feel like Steve, even after the record company ripoffs, legal problems, etc. recounted here, still feels like he deserves that place, has never not felt it.

The trajectory of the book is escape from Mississippi, immediate NYC buzz, too early stardom with “Romeo’s Tune,” never being able to match that success but continuing to persevere. Steve spends a fair amount of time providing back story on what went wrong. Blame is spread around and he takes a fair share himself but frankly I came out at the end thinking that the real problem was probably the alcohol issues he sideswipe mentions pretty frequently. So many of those what-turned-out-to-be-bad decisions sound like they were made in drunken fits of petulance or grandiosity: “I know what I’ll do, I’ll fire my whole management team and start over!” “The producer of my best-selling album is getting too much credit that should be mine, no way I’ll use him for the followup!” “I could wait and put out an album with twelve strong songs on it but no, the ones I have are good enough to rush out now!”

Which is to say, although I enjoyed the book, I came out of it liking Steve Forbert less. Still love “Alive on Arrival,” and still think he’s written wonderful songs since that should have been heard more (“Search Your Heart,” “Lay Down Your Weary Tune Again,” there are a lot of them). Still would check him out the next time he comes through town. Don’t think I’d want to have a beer (or six) with him.