Monday, March 17, 2008

Alphabet Soup: The Letter K

1. Kate — Ben Folds Five
From the beginning, one line reminded me of my friend Amanda, “Her mix tape’s a masterpiece.” Amanda introduced me to Ben Folds Five (right before “Brick” became ubiquitous), she has been my source for filling in the gaps in my Oasis b-sides collection, and we share many of the same musical favorites in general. “Kate” has always reminded me of driving around in Amanda’s old and patchy grey Buick, blasting her mix tapes and discussing everything from the music, to my writing, or shaking our heads at other’s unnecessary drama (or her shaking her head at my unnecessary drama). If there’s one thing I’ve always admired about Amanda, it is her ability to stay above the bullshit — She’s usually got a plan, almost always completes that plan and if not, well, then she has another idea ready. Backbiting teenage gossip was never in any of those plans (Really, what was the point?) and the attitude is refreshing.

When Amanda first told me about the album, Whatever and Ever Amen, she didn’t recommend listening to it while trying to fall asleep. She was just about asleep when, “I hear ‘Fuck you too! Give me my money back, you bitch! I want my money back! And don’t forget to give me back my black t-shirt.’” I went out and bought a used copy of the album within weeks. “Song For the Dumped” almost warranted an honorable mention in the Letter S, but it’s a very full letter.

Aside from personal connection, “Kate” is just plain catchy. What I’ve always liked about Ben Folds is that he pounds on that piano as though it were a guitar. Sure there are plenty of more traditional piano ballads on the album that I like (See “Evaporated” in the Letter E), but the upbeat songs sound like he and the other guys found some old instruments in the corner of a crowded bar, picked them up and banged out a song. The fuzzy bass and crashing drums sound made to get above the noisy crowd, the loud and battered piano getting everyone’s attention. I imagine that when the band first started out, that was exactly what they had to do — grab the attention of otherwise distracted bar patrons. The songs tend to be a little bit funny too, which helps.

When I listen to “Kate” now, I find myself also thinking of my daughter, Grace. “She plays ‘Wipe out’ on the drums/ the squirrels and the birds come/ Gather ‘round and sing the guitar.” Grace is the sort of kid who is interested in a million things (drums and animals included), and she has the big “I can do anything” attitude that I think is great for a girl to have. I hope she holds onto the notion that finding what makes you happy is at the base of a good life.

2. Kamikaze — PJ Harvey
Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea ranks at the perfection level. There’s not a bad song on it, and I know some hipster kids who were listening long before 2000 like to discount it as being “too approachable,” but of course that’s just proprietary snobbery. I find value in all the albums I own, but Stories... can be played start to finish, on repeat and goes several times through before I tire of listening to it.

I had only limited familiarity with PJ Harvey when I heard “Kamikaze” for the first time on Q Magazine’s Best of 2000 CD. (Anyone remember the episode of Beavis and Butthead where they see Polly Jean in the red dress, and they start grunting “Well, hello... ?” Hilarious.) Almost all of the songs on that disc led me to buying the albums, if I didn’t already own them. Q Magazine always makes me wish I had money to blow on an imported magazine subscription because they tend to like the same music I do (try and find an issue that doesn’t mention Oasis somewhere in its pages).

I don’t want to presume what exactly the song is about, but best I can tell, the message is, “You will fail trying to bring me down, and you’ll only kill yourself in the process.” Unclear meaning never prevented me from singing along, however. The high-pitched chorus is one of those that would leave you embarrassed were someone to overhear you trying to attempt it in the car, but it’s still so much fun to try. The verses build into that explosive chorus, and the lines come out of her mouth in such a deliberate way. When I went to think of songs that start with the Letter K, this was the very first song that came to mind.

3. Kid — Pretenders
Before my family’s trip to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where my aunt and uncle would give me their ‘88 Volvo, I visited the House of Blues website. Just weeks from turning 16, I let out the appropriate “EEEEEEEEE!” when I saw that Pretenders would be playing at the HOB on a Saturday we’d be there. My parents were casual enough fans to where I convinced them to buy tickets for all of us to go. While everyone else went up to find seats in the balcony, my brother Luke and I bolted down to the front. It was the first ‘real’ concert for both us, and he was around thirteen at the time. I don’t even know if he knew any songs, other than ones from the new album we’d purchased some time before the show.

What made the show a little bit more entertaining, especially while waiting for it to start, was the guy standing behind us. Clocking in the mid-range of his thirties, he looked a little bit like a middle school basketball coach I knew, and his girlfriend couldn’t have been more than 18 or 19 (in fact, I remember him joking that she couldn’t have a sip of his beer). He joked to us that the last time he’d seen the Pretenders on the HORDE tour, “Chrissie was thiiiiis big,” and held his index and thumb about two inches apart. When a guy came out to put gaffer tape at the end of the stage, he said that it was a job you give “someone’s little brother. Oh, hey, your brother wants a job on the tour? Umm... here! Go tape the stage!”

When the horrible opening band played — I don’t remember their name, but they sounded like Dave Matthews Band singing in Swahili — we yelled out, “Bring back Little Brother!” To this day, I cheer for whatever “Little Brother” comes out before the show. Go, go gaffer tape!

Chrissie Hynde purrs like a tough 60s girl group singer giving into a moment of vulnerability: “All my sorrow/ All my blue...” She has a way of making tough moments go down more smoothly, like the right drink at the right time. Only when I quit focusing on the drift of the music do I start to notice the real sadness in the lyrics:

Kid, precious kid
your eyes are blue
but you won’t cry, I know
Angry tears to hear,
you won’t let them go

What I love about Pretenders songs is how genuine they are — all the feelings of sadness, anger, love and declaration never sound forced. Watching Chrissie Hynde perform, I never had the sense that she was putting on an act, never felt that she tried to fool the audience into thinking that she had cultivated her attitude in an attempt to be popular. She’s the girl smoking with the bikers out back. And the bikers love her, that’s for sure — one of them dropped his cigar ash on Luke’s shoulder during the concert while singing along. She’s that wonderful mix of a woman who has found a way to be strong, the commanding frontwoman, and still let her weaknesses show. In fact, Chrissie Hynde reminds us that you’re not worth her respect if you can’t admit when you’re down.

4. Kisses — Tracy Bonham
120 Minutes had their annual broadcast at the KROQ Acoustic Christmas show, and the 1996 line-up came straight from my CD collection — Bush, Poe, and Tracy Bonham, among others — and I have it all recorded onto VHS. One of these days, I’m going to sit down at my mom’s and use the VCR/DVD recorder I bought her for Mother’s Day last year and re-record all those old videos and interviews. My VCR bit the dust about a year ago, after over a decade of trusty service. I remember Tracy Bonham being very funny, and I was struck by how much she looked like Laurie, a woman I knew from community theater. “Mother Mother” was her big single, loveable for the frustrated scream, “EVERYTHING’S FINE!”

I own three Tracy Bonham albums, and “Kisses” isn’t necessarily my favorite on The Burdens of Being Upright, but all the songs on that album are good in their own way. I used to sing “Brain Crack” running in gym class, much to the annoyance of my friend Julie — a song consisting of the lines “Have you ever heard the sound of your head in the ground? And you’re afraid to say and it won’t go away? That’s the sound of your brain cracking” repeated over and over. Well, I thought it was funny. “Sharks Can’t Sleep,” “Navy Bean” and “Bulldog” are other favorites.

Though I picked “Kisses” more to fill the Letter K, a song seemingly about a parasitic woman, I enjoy the 2 line chorus even on its own:

She kisses harder than me
I guess I’m not that hungry

Tracy Bonham’s faded from the musical radar since that first big single, but the albums following are all worth a listen, though I admit that Burdens is the one I play the most.

5. Kingdom of Lies — Folk Implosion
The A Life Less Ordinary soundtrack outshines the Ewan McGregor/Cameron Diaz movie from which it sprang. The movie is one of those good to watch on a weekend afternoon if it pops up on TV, but the music in the movie is all excellent. Not only did it have artists I already enjoyed (Beck, Prodigy, Luscious Jackson, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Elvis, The Cardigans, REM, the aforementioned “Beyond the Sea”), but it introduced me to new ones, Folk Implosion included. Admittedly, this is the only Folk Implosion song I think I’ve ever heard, and I’m fleshing out the letter again, but it’s a good one.

I don’t know if the song was written for the movie, but the songs go with the subject matter. Cameron Diaz plays a bored rich girl who gets a janitor (McGregor) to ‘kidnap’ her, forcing him into the ransom calls to her father, who (if I’m remembering right) has asked her to get a job. “Made it all up, girl/ out of passion/turn yourself away” and then later, “Need a place to hide/ out of anger/ out of love” follow the two trying to make their lives more exciting, distracting themselves from their loneliness and of course, since this is a movie, they fall in love. The movie may not be worth the rental, but the soundtrack merits attention.

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