Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Alphabet Soup: The Letter W

1. Wester — AFI
I know it shouldn’t matter — it shouldn’t even be more notable than hair color, ideally — but I want to know who plays for my team. For every working ‘gaydar’ and the rightful growing acceptance, I feel like those of us who fall under (what I like to call) the equal opportunity heading are just sitting in the open doorway of the closet. We’re lounging back on the door frame, ready to explain ourselves when asked, but reluctant to initiate the conversation. For every person who has had real feelings for both genders, there’s some girl who makes out with other girls only because her boyfriend thinks it’s hot. Like most news stories, it’s always the idiots that get the most attention.

Oh, and it’s not like the first half of the acronym helps much. Most of the time, I feel like the ‘B’ in ‘GLBT’ is tacked on as a courtesy because, “Come on, they’re just confused. They’ll be saying they’re gay in no time.” While I fully understand that they’re scouting for their team as well, and that some people really are trying to figure out what and who they want, I am not that person.

The misunderstandings about equal opportunity attraction could fill pages. I’m in danger of going too off-track. To summarize, it’s hard to be ‘out’ for fear of being lumped in with people whose experiences and attitudes have more to do with low self-esteem than actual preference. It’s hard to be ‘out’ when the some ends of the spectrum don’t fully believe there’s middle ground. Plus, when you’re already settled into a very happy relationship, dating possibilities cease to be an issue. Most of the time, it’s easier to not say anything unless someone brings it up.

Yes, I know it shouldn’t matter, but I would really like to claim Davey Havok for the Equal Opportunity Team. He indirectly mentions boyfriend Francis, but that’s about it. While I commend him for not making his personal life the focus, I want someone so lovely and talented in our corner. Go team! Right?

I’ll meet you tonight
In the whispers when no one’s around
Nothing can stop us now
Tonight, in the whispers where we won’t be found


“Wester” is right up there with “Silver and Cold” as far as my favorite AFI songs are concerned. Though I’d seen a few minutes of AFI’s set at the 2000 Warped Tour (still kicking myself for not paying more attention to that one), it wasn’t until Tyson mentioned Davey during a discussion about celebrity eye candy that they really registered. I have fond memories of blasting The Art of Drowning and Black Sails at Sunset while cleaning our Missoula apartment. From the very beginning, “Wester” stood out with its great punk drumming, call-and-answer chorus and lines like this:

I creep through the twilight to that hidden place
Beyond the lonely, I’ll meet you

I can feel you dreaming of me


Of all the love songs he’s written, it is the least complicated, the least doomed. He sings of the first thrilling moments when two people find each other, each private moment needing to be recreated as often as possible. When he’s not wrapped up in drama, his imagery captures adoration so well, even if it all occurs in the shadows.

The theme of private life extends throughout the album. One of my favorite lines out of any song I’ve ever heard occurs during “Of Greetings and Goodbyes” : Deep within divinity let’s start another secret show.

2. With Arms Outstretched — Rilo Kiley
Sometimes, I just have a hunch I’m going to like a certain artist. I had hunches about Ani DiFranco, Beth Orton, PJ Harvey and Rilo Kiley all based on reading an article about them, now all favorites. I don’t read music reviews as often as I used to — although an afternoon well spent is reading the massive reviews section in Q magazine— and I’m not interested in the Pitchfork-style of snobbery. Every once in awhile though, some portion of the artist’s description interests me, sparks the right feeling in the right part of my brain that makes me want to listen. A reviewer gushing isn’t a guarantee I will feel the same — for example, I only think Arcade Fire and Bright Eyes are fine enough, but I don’t own anything — and sometimes even a mediocre commentary will make me want to know more. I’m not sure what the common thread is. Like I said before, Rilo Kiley came to me by way of Entertainment Weekly, a short couple of paragraphs in a mediocre publication that I don’t usually read. Something about their description and the picture alongside made me know I would like them. Maybe that’s the link — good photography. The Rolling Stone Q&A I read with Ani DiFranco had a interesting enough photo that I hung it on my wall, I liked Beth Orton’s Trailer Park album cover, and all the photos surrounding PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City... period were beautiful. Maybe my hunches are just a thinly-veiled variety of judging a book by its cover, but I think it’s worked out well.

It’s sixteen miles to the promised land,
and I promise you, I’m doing the best I can
Now some days they last longer than others
but this day by the lake went too fast


“With Arms Outstretched” might be my favorite Rilo Kiley song, though on a different day, I may have to bestow the honor on “Teenage Love Song.” It does have the same collections of lines repeated through the whole thing, but I do love to sing along. Jenny Lewis pours her mix of uncertainty and confidence into songs that are like letters or late night conversations with everyone she’s known.

And if you want me
you better speak up
I won’t wait
So you better move fast


I think the appealing thing about her voice is that it is so direct. She doesn’t try to add any effects, and the songs are all about the simple lyrics. As though the band realizes how great the urge to sing along is, the last minute or so has a whole group of people joining her, complete with hand claps. Someone should really do a study about the innate appeal of hand claps. Is it the warm glow of group participation? Let me know what you think.

3. Why — Fleetwood Mac
Some of Christine McVie’s strongest work comes long before Stevie and Lindsey ever joined the band. I love her contributions to the bands albums between 1970 and 1973, and her very first solo album is one I wish I had on a form other than vinyl so I had more opportunity to listen to it. Her blues voice mixed with pop songs added something special to the band, all the way until the point she decided to leave after The Dance tour. Every time I put on Mystery to Me, I wonder why I don’t listen more often. Closing the album, Christine took her heartbreak and found one of her best songs.

There’s no use in crying, it’s all over
And I know there’ll always be another day
Well my heart will rise up with the morning sun
and the hurt I feel will simply melt away


“Why” is half-motivator, half-wallow, and she’s never anything but honest. In one moment, she picks herself up from her unhappiness, attempting to remind herself that no break-up is the end of the world, that she will get by. Her grasp always remains shaky however, because in the next moment she lets out:

You don’t have to give up
Why is it all wrong
Why don’t you love me
Why won’t you just be strong


Her music suggests that sometimes she has a hard time remembering that the way a person treats her is not indicative of her worth. Christine McVie is the woman who does not know how stunning she is, how smart and true her words can be. I think she may be the source of my fascination with blonde British women, from the moment I heard her interviewed in 1997. Something about the accent — and yes, I recognize there are several varieties — just gets me. A woman who might not otherwise catch my eye in the most shallow end of attraction can say just about anything with the right voice, and forget it. I’m mush.

4. We Float — PJ Harvey
My senior year of high school, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea spent most of its life in my car stereo. Every sound, every murmur and yell rippled through my brain like a constantly running program, essential for everyday functioning. I can almost smell the interior of my old and angry Volvo when I play it, that mix of aging upholstery and overpowering Yankee Candle sage citrus air freshener. I sang along in the heat when my air conditioner no longer worked, and I sang while plowing and spinning my way through the snowy streets. It reminds me of being alone in my thoughts, going to and from work.

We wanted to find love
We wanted success


For around two years, I worked as a‘confirm processor,’ a fancy way of saying envelope stuffer and mail clerk, and after a restructuring of what the work entailed, I no longer had co-workers who shared my position. For the first half of my shift, I waited for the day’s stock confirmations to arrive, and then I sorted them alongside the ordinary and unassuming computer guy who printed them for me. He wasn’t an IT guy, though we did used to share an office with that department. He wasn’t my boss, and I don’t know what his work entailed during the day, but for about two hours each afternoon, our jobs intersected. We got along fabulously, entertaining the sort of friendship that had to take two healthy steps back in order not to complicate itself. I don’t know how many years we had between us — couldn’t have been more than fifteen — but I was on the wrong side of eighteen for most of the time I worked there.

Until nothing was enough
Until my middle name was excess


I had no problem rambling on about my life (clearly), the mention of relationships included, and I also didn’t mind the unspoken flirting undercurrent. I guess the arrogant side of me appreciated the power in it all, the conversational dance. He found my madness entertaining and he was the right kind of humourous loner. I know from the outside it sounds inappropriate, but nothing truly overt was ever suggested. Everything stayed dialed-back, hung between the punctuation of everything else. I was a horrible girlfriend in high school. Just horrible, and though I knew it, I mostly ignored it. Somehow I managed to have the same boyfriend for two years, one who didn’t trust me and shouldn’t have, and we wandered through our uneven relationship where neither of us ever had both eyes on each other at the same time.

And somehow I lost touch
When you went out of sight


I can’t imagine being that person now, I find the idea deplorable. I haven’t been that person since the night I picked up Tyson from the airport nearly seven years ago, after we’d spent a month apart and realized that we were destined for no one but each other.

I’m still alone in my thoughts when I listen to this album. I don’t dissect the meaning behind the songs in the same way I do with other albums — Polly Jean creates a mood and leaves the rest up to the listener. Something about her delivery is very cathartic. The mind tends to sort itself through repeated listening, and the album has grown with me. I don’t attach it to my former self, however much my memory may wade back in for the purposes of telling a story. I may not be proud of it all, but every move along the way builds onto everything else. Every reaction to every moment is a result of what has come before.

But one day we’ll float
Take life as it comes


5. Whatever — Oasis
The year Amanda, Kristen, Amy and I decided to play as a quartet, judged as a part of the local strings festival, we entertained the idea of playing “Whatever.” Amanda and I could play part of the arrangement — bits and pieces not completely related to the viola or cello parts — but we had trouble finding sheet music. You can find just about anything online now, but in 1998, we couldn’t get an arrangement. Instead, we played a song suggested by our orchestra teacher, something much less fun.

I considered myself a pretty decent cello player, and I sat first chair, but every once in awhile some tricky piece of rhythm would get me. No matter how much I practiced, I could not be relied upon to get that one thing right every single time. In this particular song, an eighth rest tripped me up about eight tries out of ten. It was not for lack of practice — I tried, I really did. — but when I flubbed my entrance not once, but at least four times in front of the judges, I could have died right there. Being perceived as unreliable is one of the worst attributes that anyone could ever think of me, and I could feel everyone’s eyes on me. “How hard can it be? Just get it already!” I imagined them thinking. Furthering my embarrassment, I ended up crying afterward, in front of my friends and my orchestra teacher. I kept thinking how “Whatever” didn’t have any fucking eighth rests.

Here in my mind, you know you might find
Something that you, you thought you once knew
But now it’s all gone
And you know it’s no fun


Even now when I hear “Whatever,” my right arm twitches bow movements along with the strings. It’s muscle memory, the parts I know. My fascination with use of strings in rock likely cemented itself from the very first moment I heard the song, another one of Amanda’s special ordered discs at the local Hastings. Maybe someone can point out other examples, but I can’t think of any other bands from the last twenty-five years that have released a non-album single in between huge album sales, much less one with such big production involved.

I’m free to say whatever I
Whatever I like, if it’s wrong or right
it’s all right


When I started this project, I knew I wanted to talk about all sorts of songs, to really figure out what about them made my heart and brain light up. When it comes to Oasis, I already knew how the songs inhabited every part of me for so long. I wanted to find a way to articulate how they had occupied my soul, to illuminate that by even just a fraction to anyone else who wondered why. Maybe I’ve succeeded a little, but this isn’t the only music project I’ll ever write, and Oasis is the barometer by which I judge everything else. It’s not always about the specific sound of music — I need to feel it.

I never pretend to be their biggest fan and of course I’m not the only who has been moved by their music, but I also know that they are sometimes dismissed by people who don’t see it my way. I can’t change anyone’s mind, but I also think that it becomes much harder to dismiss something when presented with someone so affected by it. If anything, maybe I want to seem a little less silly, a little less like the teenager so fervently grasping to one idea. I hang on because I recognize something so true in the music, a yearning that demands that we allow our moments of doubt, admit our weakness and make ourselves better. When Amanda made me sit and watch the Unplugged session with her twelve years ago, I didn’t know that the one person who has always been to the embodiment of self-assurance was about to let me in on the thing that occupies the biggest part of my heart, second only to my family. If life and this music have taught me anything, it’s that we cannot hold our thanks inside. We cannot let the opportunity to say what’s on our mind pass. I cannot thank her enough.



Honorable Mentions:
Walking in Memphis — Marc Cohn

Take Marc Cohn’s voice, cross it with Gordon Lightfoot’s, and you’ll have a rough idea of my dad’s singing voice. He could sing pretty well for a person who I don’t think harbored any ideas of performing. Also, a rather sizable chunk of his relatives hail from Memphis. As a result, I have a nostalgic connection to this song. I find the fact that Marc Cohn was shot in the head and lived to make more music to be the type of miracle I wish happened more often.

With or Without You— U2
To let this list pass without a single U2 song would be a crime. The Edge’s guitar is so distinctive, I believe it would only take one note to identify his playing among anyone else. I know that now it’s easy to make jokes about Bono (punchline: “God doesn’t think he’s Bono”), but his voice is one of the best soaring examples of longing. Also consider “All I Want is You” a belated Honorable Mention for the Letter A.

1 comment:

  1. RE: Equal Opportunity Team rant: Amen, sista!

    RE: Walking in Memphis: I used to love that song... until I went to Memphis. Now I'm like... yup, Union Avenue is a dump. BBQ's good, though.

    ReplyDelete