Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Alphabet Soup: The Letter I

1. Idler’s Dream — Oasis
When I heard “Idler’s Dream” for the first time, the noise that came out of me fell somewhere between a gasp and a sigh. The song is so breathtaking and beautiful that even though I have it listed first under the Letter I, it is the last song I sat down to write about this week out of desire to convey my love just right.

My heart, it skips a beat when I behold
The light that’s shining through your eyes of gold
From heavenly blood you seem to spring
From heavenly waters you can drink

Laugh at me all you want, but that awe described in those four opening lines spills out of me in the same way when I hear this song. I’ve formed the sort of personal attachment to Oasis that any description never seems to fully encompass, and lord help you if you so much as suggest they are mere imitators. Their songs have seen me through every major discovery about myself, inspired me in ways that I may spend this whole list trying to articulate, and insulting them feels like an attack on my conduct. (“How very dare you,” indeed.) I am in love, and there is no way around it.

“Idler’s Dream” is a post-drugs, post-divorce, start anew B-side filled with piano, a cello and backing vocals much like REM’s “At My Most Beautiful.” It catches a moment of hesitation, a moment of disbelief when good things start happening again, as though they’ve only tumbled into his lap when he wasn’t paying attention.

I hope you don’t break my heart of stone
I don’t wanna scream out loud, wake up on my own

The longing and trepidation mixed together, the waver in the voice — When have we not felt that at one point or another? The song stands right where we bring ourselves to the line of vulnerability and decide whether or not to cross.

And as I close my eyes and the sky turns red
I realize just what you are
You’re an idler’s dream
and you’re singing Shangri-La

I love the imagery of keeping your vision even after your eyes are closed. The last four lines are the most resolutely delivered of the entire song, which then dissolve into a sigh of relief. With a lack of instruments normally used in Oasis songs, “Idler’s Dream” is like the perfect little secret song, pocketed within its bigger single. It earns the love it receives by simply existing.

2. I Saw Red (acoustic) — Sublime
Again, I may be cheating. I have the sneaking suspicion that this song might be called “Saw Red,” but the Letter S could have 50 different songs in it if I wanted, so I’m squeezing it in here. There are at least three versions of this song out there, but I prefer the acoustic take. I knew no shortage of guys who learned the song on their guitars, but I’ve always wondered what a good female cover would sound like. Maybe Sublime has not been away quite long enough for a re-imagining outside of the former members of the band.

Sublime is one of those bands reminding me that I can’t let certain people ruin music I otherwise enjoy. I’ve learned that developing a personal relationship with music should stay much more connected to myself than have it be attached to others. Discussion of my favorite songs is supposed to be about positivity, so I won’t go into why Sublime was nearly ruined for me. The important thing is that after a period of distance, I came back around to the collection of songs I enjoyed. While I wouldn’t count Sublime as one of my favorite bands, they’re a good time (and sometimes I get to sing in a little Spanish I can understand).

Of course, Brad from Sublime had a little bit too much of a good time with his life, and that’s why he’s no longer around today. “I Saw Red” (or “Saw Red”) deals with the crazy up and down feelings, and the complicated personal relationships that come with drug use.

Say it’s black, I don’t believe you
I say it’s white, you say I’m trying to deceive you
I’m aware of the high and the low
I’d be waiting for you in the middle
but I just like control

I prefer the acoustic version because it sounds more heartfelt than the ska-adjacent speed-through of other versions. The content seems to be taken more seriously, though it’s not a cautionary tale either. “Woman hold your man tight, if it makes you feel right/ It’s your own life,” he sings, after all. I have this song on a mix with other, what I like to call, ala carte bands like No Doubt — bands I haven’t spent much money on, but have a chunk of songs that have me singing along with enthusiasm. And of course, Sublime and No Doubt collaborated on the excellent song, “Total Hate” before anyone outside Orange County really knew who they were.

Sublime has the unintended benefit of a limited catalogue that ended with their highest-received album. I remember when lots of people still didn’t know that the singer was dead even as they bought the music. The videos just seemed to have a dalmatian theme. Sublime’s rise up never had the chance to slide back down into boring mediocrity, although the band formed with the remaining members has, and I don’t remember what they called themselves. I didn’t even bother squeezing myself into their crowd when they played one of the Warped Tours I attended. Like other bands with an unintended end, Sublime gets to be remembered fondly instead of hearing lamentations of when they went musically downhill. Even when the dalmatian passed away, MTV read an obit.

3. I’m Afraid of Americans — David Bowie
“Whatcha watching?” my dad asked me one evening, poking his head into my room.

“David Bowie concert on MTV,” I answered. I was in high school.

“Yeah... He was just a little too weird for me.” With that, he wandered off in search of another can of Diet Pepsi.

One thing I always liked about my dad’s musical judgement was that he wasn’t the sort of dad who imposed an ‘ethics and decency’ code to what I listened, within reason. He did tell me no when elementary school aged me asked for a Madonna album near the time of the Sex Book (which I’d heard of, but didn’t really care about). However, in telling me no, he just left it at that. No specific judgements. When Marilyn Manson became popular, he shrugged off the controversy by saying, “It’s not really any different than what Alice Cooper did.” I don’t know what sort of crap I would have listened to in an effort to bother my parents if they’d been the type to place restrictions. (Honestly, if I’d wanted to bother them, I would have just needed to turn on the country station, but that would have been cruel to all of us.)

I love this stage of David Bowie, breaking out the reddish hair, eyeliner and drum machine in a new way. That concert on MTV was probably my best introduction to his music, though I had passing knowledge of his songs before that early point in high school. If I remember correctly, someone else was supposed to play the concert and David Bowie filled in at the very last second, working out even better for MTV. Earthling had just come out, and everyone was talking about the collaboration with Trent Reznor. I don’t give a fuck about Trent Reznor mostly because I don’t think he gives a fuck about anyone other than himself (though I do like “The Perfect Drug”). No, “I’m Afraid of Americans” caught my attention because it had a disjointed dance beat, rocked out just enough at the chorus, and even though David Bowie had just passed fifty, he was hot. Eyeliner done right does set my little heart afire, of course. As usual, the man was not quite like anything else out there in 1997, and I had to love the Alexander McQueen-designed Union Jack coat. Between that and the guitar Noel Gallagher toured with, the mid-90s were a very good time for the British flag as accessory.

The production on this song is top shelf. Listening to the sound bounce back and forth between headphones, I hear so many different layers without those elements overwhelming the other. The breakdown at the end picks up the song in just the right spot, saving the song from the chorus repeating in the same way again. The fact that a song like “I’m Afraid of Americans” could come out of the same person who did “London Bye Ta Ta” or “Young Americans” amazes me. The man shares a birthday with Elvis, so that day in January must be a particularly good one should a person want to breed any musical revolutionaries.

4. I Want You to Want Me — Cheap Trick, Letters to Cleo
I can’t find the mix CD with this song. In process of going through my pile of mix CDs I’ve made over the years, I managed to collapse three out of the five shelves where I store half our CDs. The only version I could find was one from NOFX, and they mix up the words on that one. Like I said, this is a list all about positivity, so I won’t go into how very irritated I am at my disorganization and the mess I’ve left myself.

Every time I hear “I Want You to Want Me,” I am compelled, no matter how many times I may have said it to present company before, “I love this song.” Yes, I’m aware that it basically has the same couple of verses over and over. And yes, I know Cheap Trick and “all-time favorites” probably don’t often occur in the same sentence, but it really is one of my all-time favorite songs.

I also enjoy Letters to Cleo’s cover, which was on the 10 Things I Hate About You soundtrack, a movie which really isn’t as bad as some people like to pretend it is. (I could do a better comparison of the two versions... if I could find my CD.) Unlike some other cover songs, I don’t think this was my first exposure to the song, though I don’t have any story about the time I first heard the original. It’s just one of those songs that’s been on the radio just often enough to avoid overkill, though I’m sure the same can’t be said for the time it was first released. On more than one occasion, I’ve sung along to distract myself from the stress mixed with boredom in driving long distances.

I think my reasons for loving the song come down to simple factors: it’s optimistic, it’s easy to learn the words and it has the undefinable, catchy quality that makes it so easy to stay humming through your brain. I’m just happy when I hear it. My reasons for loving other songs might be more complex, but not everything has to be a thinker or a heartwrencher.

In Las Vegas visiting family, Tyson met Cheap Trick’s singer at The Four Seasons during the winter of 2001. We had just started dating, and he and I talked a lot while away from each other. He laughs now about his “Whatever” attitude meeting the guy, now knowing how much I love both this song and “Surrender.” What I find funny is that I can love those songs and yet not have a particular interest in owning any of the albums. In fact, I probably listen to the Letters to Cleo version more often, though I’ll happily take it either way.

5. I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine — Beth Orton
Speaking of cover songs, Beth Orton’s version here is the only one I’ve heard. Up until today, I only had the suspicion that it was a Ronnettes song, since Phil Spector has the writing credit. I finally looked up the information, and confirmed my assumption. I do know that this is one of the most beautiful songs about heartbreak I’ve heard.

Baby, do you know what you did today?
Baby, do you know what you took away?
You took the blue out of the sky,
my whole life changed when you said good-bye,
and I keep crying

It’s the anti- “better to have loved and lost...” and is not a song delivered with perspective. Beth Orton sings as though quietly surveying the aftermath, alone and awash in the despair that comes from the end of a big love. The song could also fit for someone who has passed away, as though both people would have gone on to do so many things together, and “now they will die and never come true.” It’s easy to see both ways.

“I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine” stands out the same way “Feel to Believe” does on Central Reservation. Both are the second to the last songs on their albums, near-closers that grab my attention with their spareness and honesty. While the rest of the albums’ songs are excellent, the two are almost worth the album price alone. I think on every album, Beth Orton has one song so easy to love that seeking out the next collection feels absolutely crucial.

Honorable Mentions:
I Love You, Suzanne — Lou Reed

I heard this song first from an Uncut magazine CD sampler, and it was one of the best songs offered. I don’t know who Suzanne is, but I love how Lou Reed sings about her: “I love you when you’re good, babe/ I love you when you’re ba-a-ad/ You do what you gotta do/ But I love you, Suzanne.”

It’s Oh So Quiet — Björk
Björk may be one of the only true originals on this planet, though maybe there’s an argument for the possibility she’s not from Iceland or any other place on Earth. “It’s Oh So Quiet” is another one of those big productions of a song that I love, all the better for Björk’s ability to let loose and be as big as the instruments backing her.

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