Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Alphabet Soup: The Letter N

1. Never is a Promise — Fiona Apple
After seeing the video for “Never is a Promise,” I remember being aware of how the release of a video can affect how I hear a song. I don’t remember what sort of images ran through my head before the song came out as a single, and it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the video, but I do remember how it spun in circles. Maybe there was a stop motion effect. I may not be affected by the video anymore, but I do know that it was this specific video that made me consider the impact it could have on the listening experience. In fact, I remember feeling disappointed that the song had a video, but it ended up not getting much play.

With her last name getting my attention, I first noticed Fiona Apple when she performed “Shadowboxer” on Saturday Night Live. Her voice sounded unlike anyone else’s out there, and honestly, it took me until about halfway through the song to figure out whether or not I liked it. I bought the CD at Wal-mart, of all places, shortly before they began editing everything in sight.

She used oddball words like “undulate” that somehow seemed to fit just right with the music, music rendered in a clear and ardent way. The songs were crafted with a real care for music, and I liked that. I know it’s a complaint as old as music itself, but there’s something to be said for musicians who aren’t puzzled by words like “time signature” or “eighth note.”

Tidal is an album that easily lends itself to personal connection, especially to a teenager looking for meaning in her life. “I don’t know what to believe in/ You don’t know who I am.” If memory serves, Fiona Apple was only nineteen when this album came out, meaning that these songs were written at an age not too far off from my age first listening to it. I know she had a complicated childhood that would make many people grow up fast, but I found it refreshing to have a young person singing about something beyond the superficial. No one prepackaged her the way other singers under the age of twenty can be.

I found comfort in her uncertainty and how she could revere others instead of tearing them down — “I’ll never glow the way that you glow.” She struggled — and continues to, really — with others misinterpreting her character, and how “your presence dominates the judgements made on you.”

For all my show of being independent and not caring about what others think, nothing quite gets me like the idea that someone might think poorly of me over something that isn’t true. Be it a rumor, a misinterpretation of my words or some other unsubstantiated impression, those are the thoughts that really shake me. Judge me for the mistakes I’ve actually made — I’ll probably be the first to admit them. I find it hard, however, to not let some incorrect thoughts out there bother me. I suppose it’s an exercise in letting go of control. I have to remember that if it does not really affect my life, then overall, it does not really matter.

My feelings swell and stretch; I see from greater heights
I realize what I am now too smart to mention — to you
You’ll say you understand, you’ll never understand


More than anything, I love this song because I know that I keep some things guarded and sometimes music is the only way to get it out. I always say that I’m an open book when asked, but some subjects are more difficult than others. Even as I’ve been writing this project, I’ve been very conscious in how I let out my thoughts. That’s not to say that I’m misrepresenting myself — No, this is probably the most personal writing I’ve done for public show, so far — but one can only be so vulnerable. I’ve left out scraps, and analysis is up to the reader. I have to trust that I’m clear. I have to trust that it’s enough.

2. Never Going Back Again — Fleetwood Mac
Lindsey Buckingham has modified his delivery of this song, and I suppose he really would have to mess with the arrangement after singing songs from one of the all-time best selling albums for over thirty years. Again, his finger-picking skills on the guitar make a person wonder how it comes out of just one instrument, and the harmony with Stevie Nicks is spot on, as usual. The original is great, but the drawn out lines of the updated version make it all shine that much more. Whereas the original sounds like a quiet resolve to stop seeing the person you just can’t shake, the later performance seems amused, knowing that no matter how many times he may say ‘no more,’ this person is always going to be involved in his life.

You don’t know what it means to win
So come down to see me again
I been down one time, I been down two time
I’m never going back again


Lindsey’s done two tours and a Presidential inauguration since “quitting” the band in the late 80s. The song may have started being about Stevie, but save for Christine McVie (unfortunately, her songs are missed), the whole lot of them can’t ever really stop making music together in some way. They’re all getting up there in age, but Lindsey seems to have weathered the least. He still has his voice, his hair, and a way of inviting attraction that doesn’t seem like an old man trying to relive his late-twenties. The piles of cocaine the band did in the 70s hardly seems to have affected him, whereas Stevie comes armed with a team of hair, make-up and wardrobe and still looks her age. I suppose he comes from good genes. His brother was an Olympic swimmer and he also swam before going into music. Maybe he really did have to scrape himself together in the 90s, but he had the good sense not to let everyone else see it.

3. No Rain — Blind Melon
When Kurt Cobain died, I remember noticing how sad other people were, but not feeling too sad myself. I was too young and my parents too old to “get” Nirvana while they still existed. I didn’t have a knowing older sibling. My dad sort of shrugged it off as “Yeah, well, he shot himself in the head and that’s that” attitude. Not investing much in the death of people you don’t know probably comes easier to a police officer. I remember thinking he might have been a little dismissive, but then, it did not affect me either. I was tired of hearing Nirvana’s Unplugged session on the radio 24/7, even though I like it now.

However, I felt sad after hearing about the death of Blind Melon’s singer, Shannon Hoon. I don’t know why; I only knew the one song. The deaths happened near each other, Hoon’s from a drug overdose. Both left daughters behind. Blind Melon, of course, did not have the same impact as Nirvana, and maybe the fact that they didn’t have a chance to be known for more than “No Rain” (and the bee girl) is what feels so sad.

Years later, I rediscovered Blind Melon through Old Boyfriend. When he was a kid, his uncle died suddenly, and he was able to find comfort by sorting through the man’s CD collection. Blind Melon’s self-titled album, bee girl on the cover (not the same girl as was in the video, mind you), sat among the albums. He loved it and found that the band had two other albums released with tracks collected before Hoon’s death — Nico, named for his daughter, and Soup. Nico is the album I have now, and it has a stripped-down version of “No Rain.” Both versions are good. The lyrics are maybe more clear on the “ripped away” version, but it does lack my favorite line from the original: “You know I like to keep my cheeks dry today, so stay with me and we’ll have it made.” The grip on sanity isn’t so firm in the second version.

This project has made it clear to me that once I’m done with the alphabet, I have some under appreciated gems I’d like to tackle. Blind Melon has to be among them. Nico is full of great songs like “All That I Need,” “Soup” and a cover of John Lennon’s “John Sinclair.” It’s a shame that they never received more attention because there’s real energy and talent behind the songs.

4. New York — Richard Ashcroft
Richard Ashcroft’s first solo album Alone With Everybody was a gift for my eighteenth birthday, but it took until a couple of years ago to fully marinate in my brain. I don’t know how it stayed under the surface because I love the album now, along with his other efforts I’ve purchased since. Start an album with a swell of strings and all the happy parts in my brain light up. “New York” doesn’t have strings, but it does have a pedal steel and a big sound after a lead-in that’s reminiscent of the Verve’s “The Rolling People.”

There’s no time to unpack here
Let’s get straight on the street


If the country is divided by the sort of people who feel at home in Los Angeles and the people who are at ease in New York City, then I fall in the latter camp. Granted, I was ten years old when I visited New York, but I went to Los Angeles in high school, and I know I’m not that person. “It’s a state of mind.” I like having different seasons, I don’t like driving and I don’t tan.

And I wanted to go, half my life
and I feel kind of strange, like I’ve never lived that life
and I’m trying hard to control my heart
and I always want to know
and I always want to go


Tyson always entertains the idea of shooting fashion in New York. He enjoys the little bit of work he’s done with fashion here, and I think everyone creative wonders at some point what it would be like to live in the city. I’ve always wanted to go back as an adult, to really spend awhile there and see more than I did. (I can say I’ve been on the viewing deck of the World Trade Center, a thought that’s now a little unsettling.) Of course, we’re not seriously thinking about going there for more than a vacation— “Need some money and some time” — but you never know where life will take you and when.

5. Night in my Veins — Pretenders
I had a crush on Chrissie Hynde before I ever fully realized that was an option. It began with “Brass in Pocket” and “I’ll Stand By You” as the first songs I noticed, and even as I saw the band live at sixteen, I could really only admit as far as “She’s just really, really... really awesome.” These sort of things take awhile to be worked out, I guess. If there’s one quality I like that seems to pop up more often than not in women (and men, too), it’s the ability to kick ass when necessary. I find it really off-putting when a person can’t stand up for themselves — and I don’t just mean in a physical way, though there’s something to be said for that. Chrissie Hynde wouldn’t let anyone mow over her. She’s steadfast in attitude, and it would take a special sort of person to be able to be with her. (In particular, a vegan who also doesn’t own leather, which is sort of funny for a women who sings a song called “Biker.”)

Warren Ellis once noted that writers often have expressions or images they tend to use repeatedly — his example had to do with Aaron Sorkin using the phrase “I hate your bleeding guts” in more than one TV script— and this song has a few of my personal favorites: “He cups his hands and he lights his cigarette/ I find myself in the bones of his face.” Even the title gets me because veins are the perfect metaphor for addiction (when not talking about actual addiction that involves veins, of course). They are the vehicle for feeling compelled do something and feeling it on all levels, no matter the circumstance:

He’s got his chest on my back ‘cross a new Cadillac
It feels good, even if it’s just the night in my veins


I love a good song about lust, and when the delivery comes from someone I like anyway, using words I might use, then I’m hooked. It’s her version of “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” The guitar’s a little early-90s cheesy, but the drums have the exact persistent beat the song needs. “I’ll Stand By You” may get all the attention from the album, and it’s a fine enough song, but I listen to this one the most.

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