Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Alphabet Soup: The Letter G

1. Glycerine — Bush
For a long, long time, “Glycerine” ranked as my all-time favorite song. Now that I’m a little more honest, “Live Forever” has just ever-so-slightly nudged its way past “Glycerine” (more about that later, obviously), but it’s an extremely close second.

In the mid to late 90s, a common refrain among the teenage girl set when asked about Bush was, “Oh my god, I looove Bush. They did that song, ‘Glycerine,’ right? The singer is soooooo hot!” And yes, Gavin is hot, and yes, I was a teenage girl at the time, but I was also a smug know-it-all scoffing at their ignorance of anything outside the one single. Because of the bandwagon attached to “Glycerine,” I always felt guilty about it being my favorite, lest I be lumped into the “OMG!” gaggle. However, I can’t get around it — it’s a beautiful song.

Kristen and I always joked that, since I played cello and she played violin, that the band should take us on tour for the sole purpose of trotting us out during this song. Employable groupies, if you will. Viewing their performance at Red Rocks Amphitheater with a violinist and cellist in tow reinforced the dream, of course.

“Glycerine” is a little about lost love, a little about death, and a lot to do with fear getting in the way of making things right before it’s too late.

Everything gone white, everything’s grey
Now you’re here, now you’re away

Gavin wrote the song in the wake of his break-up with model Jasmine Lewis, and also not long after the death of guitarist Nigel Pulsford’s father. When I was younger, I tended to concentrate on the “Oh, you poor thing” aspect of his broken heart, but now being older and having the inevitable misfortune of a few deaths in my life, I see both sides now. Whereas I once saw the song as a cry for comfort, I now see it for its plain sadness and regret. The lyrics don’t really ask for someone else to come in and heal the pain, but being put out of misery might be welcome. Being a teenager and infatuated with the songwriter doesn’t usually allow for the finer points, I guess.

The vocals and guitar really have the same handful of notes over and over, so the song’s impact would not be the same without the addition of strings. My orchestral bias aside, the phrase “tugs at the heart strings” may exist in part due to the incidence of strings within emotional songs. They add an impact in a way that band instruments alone do not quite accomplish. Band instruments, rock bands included, seem more about power and assertion, and while strings can do the very same, I’ve always felt that the strings better express the heart behind the song. In “Glycerine,” they capture the loneliness and longing better than a guitar alone could.

2. Got to Get You into My Life — The Beatles
While “Glycerine” would not have been the same without the strings, “Got to Get You into My Life” would not be quite the same without the horn section. Nor would the desire come through in quite the same way without the “Ooh” preceding the lines “And I suddenly see you” and “Did I tell you I need you every single day of my life?” I may always say that having a song written for you isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but anyone would be fortunate to have a song like this penned for them.

You didn’t run, you didn’t lie
You knew I wanted just to hold you
Had you gone we knew in time we’d meet again,
for I adored you

It’s a love song without complication, a declaration. I love the joy and I love how it is sung in a way that wants everyone to know. This is one of those songs that it feels like overstatement to go on and on about. If you’ve heard it, you know why it’s good.

3. Got My Mind Set on You — George Harrison
I will admit I’m not 100% sure if the title starts with “I Got” or just “Got,” and The Letter I has a full roster, so I may be cheating here. No matter. Also, this song falls so face first into the 1980s that it is well removed from being a second cheater Beatles song in the letter. (Hey, it’s my list, my rules, no quibbling!)

In liking this song, I admit I did not always know who sang it. At first, it was one of those songs on the radio that I found myself enjoying, even when I had a low tolerance for music coming out of that decade. It may have been high school by the time I bothered to find out the artist behind it, and I don’t remember if I sought out the information or realized it by accident. With many of the 80s hits, it’s easy to assume that they may have been done by a band that had the one big song and then carried on a modest career in Germany or some other quiet, semi-noticed existence away from the US charts.

What I do remember is flipping through albums in a West Yellowstone record store with my friends Brittany and Amy, wondering if they happened to have George Harrison’s solo album. Brittany and Amy were big Beatles fans, and while Amy preferred John, Brittany liked George, though she did have an affinity for Ringo. We were on a high school biology trip, and after dinner one evening, we were permitted some free time wandering around the town. I’ve always liked West Yellowstone. It’s part of the one corner of the park located in Montana, and even though Wyoming has more of the National Park in acreage, Montana likes to pretend they can claim ownership. West Yellowstone is technically just outside of the National Park, and the town has a great accumulation of sites: good restaurants, the grizzly and wolf discovery center where you can see the animals up close, the IMAX theater, and of course, an assortment of places to shop. An odd little record store in the middle of all the tourism would maybe have an album that one normally did find other places. Honestly, I don’t remember if Brittany found the album — I don’t think so, but maybe she did — but I do remember how we discussed how different this song was compared to, say, all the sitar-heavy stuff from the previous decade.

I love the drum beat that lends itself so well to hand claps, until there are actual hand claps about a third of the way through. The horn section uplifts, and I love the sentiment “This time I know it’s real/ The feelings that I feel/ I know if I put my mind to it/ I know I could really do it.” It’s easy to sing along to the song, with only a few different sections of lyrics repeated throughout the song. Sometimes repetition like that can get tiring, but here I feel it works.

Despite my semi-ignorance of the Beatles up until roughly the past three or so years, I’ve always had a soft spot for George Harrison. I can’t quite identify why, since it wasn’t exactly a musical connection. Maybe it had to with my tendency to pick someone different from everyone’s first choice, in this case of course the John/Paul team (Brittany’s the only person I’ve met who’s expressed a preference for Ringo). Maybe it’s the story from Oasis’s “Talk Tonight” where Noel Gallagher met a woman who said he resembled a young George Harrison. It could be a reason as shallow as that, but at first I knew more of George Harrison’s biography than his music, though nothing extensive in either respect.

When he died, I felt genuinely sad in the same way you do upon hearing a relative to whom you were not particularly close dies. I laid in front of the TV for an entire day watching the news stories and specials on his life. I’ve been known to watch every episode of Behind the Music whether I cared about the band or not, just wanting to soak up more musical knowledge for the mental encyclopedia, but the death of George Harrison felt more important than that. Maybe the fact that illness had withered away someone who had contributed so much struck me, or the feeling of history passing in the same way as the news stories sound upon the death of a former president. Despite any mistakes made in that person’s life, I value the reverential tone taken when commenting upon the whole of their contributions.

4. Gravel — Ani DiFranco
When Ani DiFranco plays “Gravel” live, the venue damn near explodes with sound. Somehow she manages such a big song with little more than an acoustic guitar, and when I last heard her perform at The Met (now the Bing Crosby Theater) here in Spokane, “Gravel” had to be the loudest song in the set. She comes back to town in April, this time playing at a coffee shop. I can’t imagine how massive the song will be there, should she play it. From the album Little Plastic Castle, it’s one she tends to classify as “old and crusty,” though this one pops up more often in set lists compared to other songs from the album. It’s a great story of “I love you, I hate you, I just can’t kick you.”

As with many of her studio albums, that explosive energy doesn’t quite come through in the same way. I’ve heard more than one person, Ani included, say that the songs don’t really get their legs until they are heard live. It’s true in a lot of ways. Prior to seeing her play at The Met, the songs from her newest album at that time, Reprieve, had not really wormed their way into my brain until I heard her play some of them that night. I hear the studio albums in a different way after hearing the songs live, and her live albums get a bit more play than the others on my stereo.

However, like I’ve said before, Little Plastic Castle is the album that brought me to her first. What I thought was great coming out of a studio session improves even more hearing it live. Since three years passed between my owning of the album and the first time I saw her live, and then five years passing until the next time, the songs are happy surprises in the set lists. As fans of hers know, she puts out an album about once a year — there’s a wealth of material she could be using. I hope I can see her play at The Service Station coffee shop this spring.

5. Gutters Full of Rain — David Gray
Before he was Mr. Sensitive of the pop radio set, David Gray had a more rough, busking-style edge. He also used to sing in an accent that wasn’t entirely his own, but he’s since dropped that too. I know it’s typical to say “Oh, you should hear the early albums,” but I must insist here. Even though I enjoyed David Gray’s last album, A New Day at Midnight, I will admit that he’s not as interesting as he used to be.

I can’t claim to be an early fan. I came in right at the same spot most Americans did with the album White Ladder. WL straddles the line between his more folk early years and the radio-friendly artist he is today. I saw the video for “Babylon” on 120 Minutes and later bought the album at a Virgin Megastore in Denver, Colorado. The one nice thing about discovering an artist midstream in their career is that there’s a back catalogue to accumulate. Unfortunately, it took at least another six months after the November I bought WL for the previous three albums to gain US distribution.

Oddly enough, I also bought Sell, Sell, Sell in a Virgin Megastore, though this time at the one located in Downtown Disney, Florida. It’s funny to spend roughly $14 for an album whose cover art has a bunch of 9.99 stickers on it, but when my music shop choices at home were either Target or Hastings, I couldn’t trust that I could find the album later. This was just before everyone began to order or download online, of course.

“Gutters Full of Rain,” even though it comes near the end of the album, caught my attention the most during my first few listens, due in no small part to this bit at the end:

Light another cigarette
but the one I got’s still lit
I can’t seem to keep my fingers

Never noticing the war
‘til it’s right there at your door
And suddenly your hands are bloody

The song ends just seconds after, and I immediately backed up the track and had to listen again. I’m fond of the cigarette-as-indicator-of-stress imagery, which probably explains why I have so many characters who smoke, even though I do not. There’s so much to convey with a cigarette, even right down to the significance of the brand smoked, that I just can’t disregard in our smoking ban society.

Of course, I’m not only fixated on the cigarette. I’ve commented before that it’s hard to see what is wrong with a relationship from the inside until it ends, and the last three lines there sum it up better than most. He doesn’t sing the song to anyone — it’s more of a moment to self-reflect, wonder aloud, and let himself feel like shit for just a little while longer. I’m fascinated by different forms of grief and how people write about it — “Me like a million/ others before/ trying to make sense of the rain.” In a way, this song reminds me a bit of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, but that’s a literary essay for another day.

Honorable Mention: God Shuffled His Feet — Crash Test Dummies
“Mmm Mmm Mmm” may have been the bane of radio DJs’ existence, but this entire album is underrated. One winter in Missoula, Tyson and I were playing pool in the University of Montana game room, and the guy working the desk put it on. He seemed surprised when I complimented the choice.

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