Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Alphabet Soup: The Letter H

1. Happy Phantom — Tori Amos
The summer I turned 13, I probably played this song just short of, oh... forty bajillion times. When I started to pay more attention to Tori Amos, I confiscated my dad’s Little Earthquakes CD and with near constant rotation on my discman, I listened through battery-run speakers plugged into the headphone jack. Even though I liked the idea of a multi-disc changer, I was quite happy with the set-up. After all, I did not own that many CDs yet.

One afternoon, a friend came over when I had “Happy Phantom” set on repeat. After about twenty minutes, and after I’d somewhat quit paying attention to what I had on, she said, “Wait... Are we still listening to the same song?” Embarrassed, I put on a different CD. She and I had different tastes to the point where we had drifted away from each other as friends less than a year later. Probably one common trait that my longtime friends and I all have is that we’re all at least a bit obsessive about one thing.

“Happy Phantom” always struck me as a song that would do well with tap dancing moves but without the actual taps. The actual tapping sound would drown out the piano, but if I were to choreograph something for the song, there would be all sorts of shuffles done in black ballet shoes.

The song is probably one of the happiest songs I’ve ever heard about death. Tori takes the attitude that’s it just an opportunity to do the things you can’t do while alive — in her case, chase nuns, run around naked, and walk in the rain without getting wet. She realizes it is in evitable that we will all die, so she’s made piece with it. The part that always gets stuck in my head is when she sings about others who have passed to the next stage:

There’s Judy Garland taking Buddha by the hand
and then these seven little men got up to dance
They say Confucius does his crossword with a pen
I’m still the angel to a girl who hates to sin


I love the bouncy piano and the twirling bit at the end, and at a little over three minutes long, it’s just long enough. My only complaint is the high-pitched chorus is hard for me to sing along, but if no one’s listening, I attempt it anyway.

2. Handle With Care — Jenny Lewis with Conor Oberst -or- Traveling Wilburys
Just when it may seem that I’ve finally included a song that isn’t a decade or more old, it’s really just a cover of an old song. I think I’ve only heard the original once or twice, but the cover is similar. It’s hard to go wrong considering the members of Traveling Wilburys, and once again I’ve come back to George Harrison. I do enjoy a good musical parallel, though when you think about it, it’s hard to find a group that doesn’t have shades of either The Beatles, Bob Dylan or even Roy Orbison.

I first heard of Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis’ main band, when I came across a review for More Adventurous in Entertainment Weekly. Rarely do I read EW, but the issue had Hugh Jackman on the cover and Tyson brought home an extra issue lying around at work. The short piece about the band was enough to convince me that they might be something I’d like, and so I went looking for some songs to download. My thoughts on downloading are a digression for another day, but I will say this — Finding free downloads of Rilo Kiley songs led me to buying another album of theirs, and also led me to the purchase of Jenny Lewis’s solo album. In short, being able to listen to a few questionably-legal downloads made me a fan and led me to spend money on them that I might not have otherwise spent. I have much less of a disposable income than I did in high school, and it’s not as worth it to spend based on a hunch.

State of the music industry discussion aside, Rabbit Fur Coat does not have many weak moments, though I’m actually least fond of the title track. The album is more alt-country adjacent than Rilo Kiley, and “Handle With Care” catches my attention the same way Ryan Adams does. I never quite got into Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes, but he’s great here, taking over the chorus and much of the second half:

I’m so tired of being lonely
I still have some love to give
Won’t you show me that you really care
Every body got some body to lean on
Put your body next to mine
and dream on


I like the “Please, let this be effortless” desire behind the song. When life seems to throw one giant hassle and disappointment after another, having someone in your corner at the end of it all makes a difference. I rank this one high on the list of songs that, were I actually talented enough to be in a band, I’d cover every so often. I don’t understand it when some bands get snobby about playing other people’s songs, as though that somehow compromises their ‘art.’ Jenny Lewis’s cover of “Handle With Care” is a prime example of the well-placed tribute enhancing an already excellent album.

3. History — The Verve
“Bungalow” has to be one of the funniest words ever. I giggle every time I say it, hear it or even read it, sometimes followed by a Beavis-like “I am Cornholio!” intermission before I can rejoin regular conversation. Yes, but what does my strangeness have to do with The Verve? Stay with me here.

The summer I turned fifteen, my family took a road trip through Canada. My aunt, uncle and cousin from South Carolina were visiting, and we would all drive to Lethbridge, Edmonton, Jasper and Banff. In Jasper, we had booked, you guessed it, bungalows(!) for an evening. Essentially, the bungalows were similar to the minimalist cabins just a few hours south in Montana, but Oh, Canada! You just had to make me giggle with your ketchup-flavored chips, barely caffeinated soda and Bungalows! (The word ‘Banff’ makes me giggle too with the double F. Canada is nothing but f-fun, really.)

Lying in bed that night in Jasper, stretched out just so I felt comfortable and the headphones would stay over my ears, I had The Verve’s A Northern Soul album on repeat. Along with that album, I also did much listening to Ani DiFranco’s Up, Up, Up, Up, Up, in particular “Hat-Shaped Hat,” which almost made the cut for the Letter H here. Considering the titles of both of those albums, I suppose it’s appropriate that we were on a trip through Canada, though they just happened to be the albums holding my attention at that moment.

“History” has an orchestra backing that comes as sort of the warm-up for “Bittersweet Symphony” that would come later. “I’ve got to tell you my tale/ of how I’ve loved and how I’ve failed” — the sentiment is similar, though on a smaller and more personal scale, dissecting the path to the present. It’s one of those beautiful heartbreakers, an excellent song on a stand out album.

4. Happy Meal II — The Cardigans
Back when I used to be blonde, I cut my hair off into a bob that had a handful of people commenting that I looked like the lead singer of The Cardigans, Nina Persson. Prior to that, I’d heard a lot of comparisons to Jewel, what with the round face and pre-braces teeth. Since I enjoyed music from both, I took it as flattery. We came by The Cardigans the same way most Americans did — “Lovefool” on the Romeo and Juliet soundtrack. While that song is fine, I do enjoy how the band’s other songs tend to blend the breezy vocals with more meaty, sometimes darker subject matter. (I also like that, being Swedish, they almost all have double S-spelled last names, but that’s me being a word nerd again.)

Although on the surface, “Happy Meal II” seems like an innocent enough song about preparing for a much anticipated date, there’s an undercurrent of prematurity and maybe a splash of desperation.

And now I’ve found a partner
No one can be happier than I am
And now I’ve found a new friend
No one can be happier than me


I could be over analyzing it, but while on one hand this seems like a song about the first at-home dinner date with likely spending the night, to me it sounded like she could be getting a little ahead of herself. The song reminds me a bit of those girls who believe that every new guy is “the one,” Mr. Wonderful on the white horse and all that, based almost solely on the fact that he agreed to one date after she’s spent weeks pining from afar. “Make up some nice stories to amuse you/ Make things look smart and easy” does not sound like the date preparation of an established couple. Or it shouldn’t be, anyway.

However, I can also see the song from a more hopeful side. Maybe she has built up this guy, and maybe all this meticulous set dressing is only in hopes of both of them falling in love over one great dinner. Maybe it’s all just sunny optimism, but paired with the complicated content of other Cardigans songs, I wonder. I enjoy songs that are a bit of a thinker, but still retain their sing-along quality. The Cardigans have that balance near perfected.

5. Hot One — Shudder to Think
From the soundtrack to one of my favorite movies, Velvet Goldmine, I first heard this song on a CMJ Music sampler CD that came with the magazine, before I had a chance to see the movie. I have a major weakness when it comes to 70s glam rock, so it made sense that it would catch my attention. Todd Haynes’ ‘what-if?’ film that was not exactly about David Bowie and Iggy Pop during the Ziggy Stardust years made me wish I lived somewhere larger so that I could have seen it in the theater. Instead, my friend Amy and I rented it, Amy being one of the few friends who I knew would not stare at me and wonder why they’d let themselves be talked into renting the freak show. (We did that together later — leaving some of our, let’s say, more innocent friends slightly traumatized.)

Fun music, glitter, cocaine and Ewan McGregor — what’s not to love, right? Well, Ewan did look a bit greasy in this one, but Eddie Izzard and Toni Collette are both in it, and they’re two of my favorites. I also like a good music biopic, even if this one doesn’t exactly fit the definition, much like Haynes’ current film, I’m Not There. (There’s gender-bending in that one too, of course.)

I don’t know anything about the band Shudder to Think. I only know the two songs they have on the soundtrack, and “Hot One” is one of the best on the whole disc. With the piano, low rumbling guitar and bass, and almost choir-like backing vocals, the song is big and dramatic in all the right ways. It begs to be performed in front of a large audience with all the right lighting and costuming. The posturing is part of the appeal.

I haven’t seen Velvet Goldmine in awhile — probably the last time was when I rented it with Tyson when we still lived in the University of Montana dorms. Listening to “Hot One” and the rest of the soundtrack makes me realize that maybe I’ve neglected the DVD purchase for too long.

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