Recent Songs #6


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So many good songs already in 2018! Here are a few that have caught my ear:

  1. “Summer’s End,” John Prine. He sounds like himself again (yes, I understand there were medical issues) and although it’s been 13 years since an album of his own songs he doesn’t press or overthink it. This one’s a heartbreaker, a man alone in a bed watching the shadows across the ceiling and imploring an absent lover to come back…and as we’ve noted before in songs of this ilk (there’s a million of them) he’d have to actually be talking to her for there to be any hope of action on that front. “You don’t have to be alone,” the singer says to himself, but they both still will be by the end of the song, and the predictable rhymes feel like destiny.
  2. “Roman Cars,” Buffalo Tom. This appears to be a more rocking take on the exact same situation, someone left behind singing to someone gone, singing as Townes Van Zandt said for the sake of the song because the other person’s not around to listen. We are, though, and while I don’t exactly know why “The only time I see your face is when I run a light” evokes a world of loneliness. “You’ll never know how hard I tried,” the singer repeats toward the end, which is something we all say but he convinces me he means it. No “Taillights Fade” but hey, pretty good lo these 30 years on.
  3. “Purple Hearts,” Jeffrey Messersmith. Here’s a happier-sounding one, the Left Banke with a beat, though the situation it describes of lovers so battered from past affairs they can’t figure out a way forward with someone new is far from rosy. The cleverness of the lyrics provides some hope: the girl who’s outgrown a thing for West Point graduates, the guy praying this time won’t leave a mark. This much self-awareness has got to indicate some light at the end of the tunnel, right? Actually love the whole album, especially the over-the-top symphonic stuff. It’s encouraging someone is still making music like this. Fingers crossed someone besides me is buying it.

    (Clever lyrics sidenote: was watching a PBS special with Broadway star Sutton Foster last night and she was singing a Cole Porter song about a woman trying to avoid a seduction and this: “My will is strong/But my won’t is weak.” Just wanted to share.)
  4. “The Joke,” Brandi Carlisle. Another big production number and Jesus, that voice! Lyrics have a Belle and Sebastian feel to them, verse 1 a striving boy and verse 2 a striving girl, both being kept down by…well, everything, but Brandi assures them to keep trying, it’s ultimately going to turn out okay. Her evidence for this is shaky–she’s seen some movies that have a happy ending–but the way she sings that line “I have been to the movies” gives me goosebumps.
  5. “Whistle on Occasion,” Kim Richey and Chuck Prophet. We’ll close out with a happy song, or at least one of acceptance: “I count my blessings when I find them.” It’s a folky stroll sort of song, the two voices winding together with the offhand familiarity of friends talking at a baseball game and the lyrics spontaneous and conversational: “Got my hands in my pocket and my feet on the ground/I might whistle on occasion when there’s no one else around.” Actually, I could imagine John Prine writing that line.

“Sally MacLennane” and “A Rainy Night in Soho,” The Pogues


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As with Frank Sinatra, when it comes to the Pogues, you need a fast one and a slow one.

“Sally MacLennane” is the fast one, all accordian and tin whistle and shouts in the background. It tells an old story: someone goes away, someone stays home. The person who stays home envies the one who went away. The one who went away returns and doesn’t recognize the place he left. Shane MacGowan’s version of the story is death-haunted: the train the restless one takes to escape his hometown becomes by the end of the song a train taking away bodies for funerals. And that restless one, upon returning to an unrecognizable place, drinks himself to death, which the song’s narrator seems to regard with misguided admiration. An accurate rendering of character or display of the writer’s limitations? And on the subject, the Internet tells us that “Sally MacLennane” is a type of beer but I prefer if she’s a woman, whom the restless one loved and left and the one who stayed at home learned to love and formed a life with. Better song that way.

“A Rainy Night in Soho” has always felt like a perfect New Year’s song to me. Or wedding song, or funeral song, it’s got that kind of depth. It’s another old story, a different, perhaps common one: two people meet and neither one goes away, but instead they piece together a life of dependence and independence and realizing they must be getting older only because they notice it happening to their friends, as Greg Brown says in a song with a similar sentiment. Do old friends, old lovers, mitigate the passage of time, or just make you feel it more acutely? Both, of course. It’s the rare MacGowan song with no mention of alcoholic beverages. “The measure of my dreams” gets all the love but I love this personally:

I’m not singing for the future
I’m not dreaming of the past
I’m not talking of the first times
I never think about the last

I saw the Pogues once: I didn’t know their music that well and went with a friend who ended up with a black eye from the moshpit he was maybe a little too proud of. This was Boston and everyone in the audience knew the words to every one of the songs; by the end of the show I was making believe I did too because I wanted to be part of the wonderful communal feeling. I also saw Shane once solo: he inevitably seemed inebriated, and if it was a Dean Martin-like act it was a very good one. He didn’t speak a word to the audience outside the songs, as though he didn’t trust himself to speak off the top of his head, or wasn’t capable of it. But he did know his lyrics by heart and sang them fast but with conviction. I remember an endless dubstep-y thing toward the end of the show.

Hey, happy St. Patrick’s Day!



All right, it’s a “musical” not “music” but I had a chance to see it last weekend and I can’t let that go without comment. I think I’ve mentioned before based on listening to the cast album that all superlatives are deserved, and in person only enhances that opinion. No need then to repeat all those superlatives so I’ll just start from the premise that it’s a thrilling, audacious, generation-defining show and offer a few random observations:

  1. Influential? That’s one of the superlatives I’ve read and it’s one of the few I’ll take exception with. Sure, while watching it I did imagine it was like what people felt when watching “Oklahoma” or “West Side Story” for the first time but I’m not sure influential is the right word for any of those (maybe “Oklahoma”). It’s more that you’re seeing a demonstration of the finest a genre is capable, a work that honors and challenges the form, stretches it in unexpected directions while leaving the basic outline intact. But do I want there to be 100 more rap musicals? Not so much. Five or six good ones would be okay.
  2. My Lin-Manuel Miranda Man Crush. The courage to have come up with this concept of a musical about a Revolutionary War hero told through contemporary idioms and with diverse casting! The talent to carry through on it (those songs!) And still young, young-ish, what is he, 35 or so? He’s not in the show anymore, and though the actor I saw play Hamilton (Michael Luwoye) was great I don’t think this is a show that you come out of thinking about the performances as much as the creative force behind it. They should just drop a big poster of Lin’s face during curtain calls so we could clap for him, every night.
  3. Album vs. Live. Yes, I know people pay thousands of dollars to get a seat and God bless them if they have the money but in my opinion listening to the cast album took me 75-80% of the way there. You lose some of the emotion of seeing the songs delivered by real people and some of the urgency of the the staging, but the songs are so good and the arc of the story so compelling you don’t necessarily need to be in the room to get the a large part of the experience. But, you know, do go if get the chance.
  4. Goosebump Moments. “My Shot,” a moment where even though I knew what was coming I still found myself surprised and amazed by what I was seeing and the thought behind it, and “It’s Quiet Uptown,” which killed me when I heard it on the album and destroyed me live. Special mention too for “The Schuyler Sisters,” which didn’t stand out for me when listening but was was completely charming live. Even the minor characters get great songs! How did Lin-Manuel do that?

“A Song for You,” Donny Hathaway


As with many other songs, radio d.j. Vin Scelsa introduced me to this some suburban weeknight many years ago while I sat in my basement probably writing a short story or love letter fiddling with the radio to pick up WNEW from New York with the least amount of static. That was the original Leon Russell version; Leon also wrote the song around 1970. (RIP Leon 2016; I saw him do a few songs with Elton John at the Talking Clock Revue show around 2010. He was, let’s say, wooden.)

The original is great but this cover version is better. It feels like it has more risk than Leon’s, more vulnerability. When Leon sings through the character in the song, a rock star who has treated his lover badly but is now going to make it all up to her by pulling out his trusty guitar and singing her a song, there’s something overdetermined about how successful he’ll be. This song would melt anyone into a puddle, and Leon seems aware of that going in. Perhaps he’s even used the same move on other, past lovers who he treated badly.

In Donny’s version you hear pride and the self-aggrandizement in the lyrics (“While you’re considering whether to forgive me don’t forget to factor in that tens of thousands of other people love me”) but also something pleading. It feels like an interaction, not a performance. The voice is pure, the piano glissandos beautiful, the pace slow but it’s a bit of a cover for how hard he’s trying, for how much he knows this matters.

I mean, it’s still a bit overdetermined–you know no one’s going to be able to resist that voice–but Donny manages to convince you he doesn’t know.

Donny Hathaway is a bit of a tragic figure: he had a few solo songs that still get played, neither of which I’m a big fan of (“This Christmas,” “Someday We’ll All Be Free”) and then a few hits with Roberta Flack that I do enjoy, especially “Where Is the Love.” (Fun fact: they met as undergraduates at Howard University.) He was diagnosed in the early seventies with paranoid schizophrenia and heavily medicated off and on, the “off” mostly due to his own neglect. He committed suicide in 1979 by jumping from a hotel balcony. Jesse Jackson presided over his funeral.

Anyway, this song, in either Leon’s or Donny’s or even Andy Williams’s version: guaranteed to quiet a room. That moment at the end when the voice comes back in after the piano solo, “I love you in a place where there’s no space or time”? Sublime.

2017 Favorites




Happiest Song of the Year: “Molotov,” Jason Isbell. “If We Were Vampires” is the song I probably played most this year (it’s amazing) but this one from late in the album (one of the few albums I bought!) is a guaranteed smile-bringer. I like that they are still together at the end, I didn’t catch that the first few times I listened when I thought it was another “my high school girlfriend was so cool” exercise in nostalgia. F%$% nostalgia! (Mostly.)

Saddest Song of the Year: “Wandering Boy,” Randy Newman. Kills me every time. Perhaps I am reading too much into it.

Hey, I Recognize That Guy! Song of the Year: “You Shouldn’t Look At Me That Way,” Elvis Costello. The first Costello song I’ve wanted to play over and over since, since, since…um, maybe “Still” from 2003? Maybe he should give up rock and roll like he’s been threatening since the early 90’s and just do lounge-y MOR stuff. (What he should NEVER do again are cover versions slowed to dirge tempos to show off his “vocal chops.” Only works on his own stuff.)

Gorgeous New Voices of the Year: Joan Shelley, Molly Burch, Jade Jackson. I’d throw in Annie Clark (St. Vincent) but I’d heard a few of her songs previously…though nothing as drop-dead pretty as “New York.” (Special shoutout to including a “motherfucker” in there so it doesn’t get too pretty.)

Song That I Have No Idea What It’s About But Still Love of the Year: “Hustle Unlimited,” Lambchop. I am a lyrics guy, but I’ve never bothered to listen to the lyrics on this one. Will someday. For now, just like the groove.

Disk 1

  1. Jackpot, Nikki Lane
  2. Molotov, Jason Isbell
  3. In Undertow, Alvvays
  4. Sparks Fly, Waxahatchee
  5. Painted Yellow Lines, Dispatch
  6. Revolution, Van William featuring First Aid Kit
  7. She’s About to Cross My Mind, Red Button
  8. Young Lady, You’re Scaring Me, Ron Gallo
  9. Westermarck, Charly Bliss
  10. Out Worn, Soccer Mommy
  11. The Hustle Unlimited, Lambchop
  12. What’s That Perfume You Wear, Jens Lekman
  13. New York, St. Vincent
  14. You Shouldn’t Look At Me That Way, Elvis Costello
  15. Leaving LA, Father John Misty

Disk 2

  1. Soulfire, Little Steven
  2. Hungry Ghost, Hurray for the Riff Raff
  3. Everything is Magical, Jeremy Messersmith
  4. Sleeping By Myself, Julian Lage & Chris Eldridge
  5. Darling, Real Estate
  6. The Push and Pull, Joan Shelley
  7. Postcard from Paris, Glen Campbell
  8. Downhearted, Molly Burch
  9. Reckless, Rodney Crowell
  10. If We Were Vampires, Jason Isbell
  11. No Guarantees, Jade Jackson
  12. Wandering Boy, Randy Newman
  13. I’ll Be Your Pilot, Belle and Sebastian

Missed Songs


This will be my 25th anniversary of putting together a compilation (first on cassette, then on CD, it’s just a matter of time before it’s digital) of my favorite songs of the year. To mark the occasion I put together another compilation, of songs I failed to include the first time around and should have: my missed songs.

Some of these I missed because I never heard them the first time around, and some because I heard them too much. In the second category I’d put some songs I considered too slick and radio-omnipresent: why would I put something on my faves CD I already felt like I’d heard too much? (I call this the “Graceland” effect because there was a year-long period when that Paul Simon album was playing at every party and restaurant I went to…I knew it was great but I never got around to buying it because I heard it so much.) But now I turn up the radio whenever I hear these songs, like “Do You Realize?” by Flaming Lips, “Yellow” by Coldplay, “How to Save a Life” by The Fray, and “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol.

Similar omissions were the result of pure snobbiness: “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys, “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga, “Wonderwall” by Oasis. I justified not including these by saying they would stick out from the indie rock and Americana that dominates my faves, but this was a bad justification since they are great songs that again I turn up whenever they come on.

In the first category, of stuff I just didn’t hear, I’d put: “Fake Plastic Trees” by Radiohead, “Waltz #2” by Elliot Smith, “7 Nation Army” by the White Stripes, “Book of Love” by Magnetic Fields. I probably read about these bands at the time and for one reason or another decided they weren’t for me.(Remember this was before you could hear every song ever recorded with a few taps on a screen…you actually had to go to a record store and lay down your money.) Radiohead I came to through folk music cover versions I mostly heard on the Emerson College radio station, WERS. The Magnetic Fields song I also first heard in a cover version, Peter Gabriel’s, which they played on a “Scrubs” episode. The White Stripes I finally caught up with on a plane trip where the “Elephant” album was a in-flight entertainment selection.

Other songs I didn’t hear at the time I included because when I did hear them, randomly years later, they hit me emotionally, choked me up: “Love Story” by Taylor Swift, “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen, “Jesus Etc.” by Wilco, “The Story” by Brandi Carlisle, “Keep Me In Your Heart” by Warren Zevon. I’m almost glad I didn’t hear them until the moment when they would land so hard.

Some songs I can thank my son for, and offer gratitude for his musical journey from gangster rap enthusiast to musical omnivore. Among the songs I first heard blasting from his bedroom or the bathroom while he showered: “Common People” by Pulp, “Glad Girls” by Guided by Voices, “Redbone” by Childish Gambino. I don’t think he first played me “Chicago” by Sufjan Stevens and “This Year” by the Mountain Goats, but I don’t think I appreciated them as much until after he did. I liked that these were songs he liked.

And then there are the songs that I did hear and inexplicably failed to appreciate, the “what the hell was I thinking?” songs: “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley, “Orphan Girl” by Gillian Welch, “White Winter Hymnal” by Fleet Foxes.

There are a few more. Here’s the full list of 28; see you in 25 years for the next edition!

Anthem, Leonard Cohen (1992)
Hallelujah, Jeff Buckley (1994)
Wonderwall, Oasis (1995)
Fake Plastic Trees, Radiohead (1995)
Common People, Pulp (1995)
Orphan Girl, Gillian Welch (1996)
Waltz #2, Elliott Smith (1998)
I Want It That Way, Backstreet Boys (1998)
Book of Love, Magnetic Fields (1999)
Yellow, Coldplay (2000)
New Slang, Shins (2001)
Glad Girls, Guided by Voices (2001)
Do You Realize, Flaming Lips (2002)
Jesus, Etc., Wilco (2002)
7 Nation Army, White Stripes (2003)
Keep Me in Your Heart, Warren Zevon (2003)
Chicago, Sufjan Stevens (2005)
How To Save a Life, The Fray (2005)
This Year, The Mountain Goats (2005)
You Give Me Something, James Morrison (2006)
Chasing Cars, Snow Patrol (2006)
The Story, Brandi Carlisle (2007)
Love Story, Taylor Swift (2008)
White Winter Hymnal, Fleet Foxes (2008)
Sequestered in Memphis, Hold Steady (2008)
Dog Days Are Over, Florence + the Machine (2009)
Bad Romance, Lady Gaga (2009)
Redbone, Childish Gambino (2016)