Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Alphabet Soup: The Letter D

1. Deep Dish– Ani DiFranco
If I ever find myself in a pinch for a good bar scene in a piece of writing, I get liberal inspiration from this song.

Cold and drizzly night
in Chicago’s Deep Dish
Flourescent light of the bathroom
shows my hands as they are
See an eyelash on my cheek,
pick it off and make a wish
and walk back out into the bar

I find it impossible to listen to this song and not have it flicker through my mind with a cast of the familiar, down to the doorman lighting a cigarette. I love the horns, the change-ups and the steady drum beat. It may be one of the less guitar-centric Ani DiFranco songs, although there is a great blast of it at the end.

Little Plastic Castle has a bit of a different personality than other Ani DiFranco albums. In common music journalistic lore, we find her at the point where she wandered a little farther away from the political and more into the personal, though I’ve seen plenty of both in the albums predating and coming after LPC. However, this is the album where I came in, and perhaps my view is not the most complete. I tend to prefer the more personal songs, but then I keep my soapbox stashed only until necessary. The frequency at which I find a good fist-shake necessary has waned over the years. My concentration has shifted. Some would accuse me of complacency, maybe, but I don’t think that’s true. While I may prefer a story of all the motions in emotion, I still appreciate that Ani DiFranco’s still out fighting the good fight, even if I can’t be arsed to do it myself.

My very first encounter with Ani was in a Rolling Stone Q&A. The generous bramble of dark brown curls with the popular mid-90s dash of blonde near the face and a clavicle tattoo caught my attention. I’d heard of her before, but did not know much about her. The article mentioned how she had previously dated women, but at the time was on her way to meet her boyfriend’s parents. The not-quite-fully-realized equal opportunist within appreciated reading that acknowledgment as something very legitimate. Ten-plus years later, I still hardly ever see romantic equal opportunity treated as anything beyond a transition or a phase, and it’s a maddening topic about which I could go on at length. She was (and still is) funny, serious about her music and forever wanting to improve at it. Above all, I had a very strong gut feeling that the music would move me. I cut out that article, hung it on my wall, and mentally filed away her name as an artist I needed to acquire.

I listened to LPC in Missoula, back when Future Shop occupied the Best Buy space and Reserve Street had a quarter of the development it does now. They had it at a listening station, and maybe I had no money or had spent it all earlier at Rockin’ Rudy’s (Yes, I’m noting the irony that I listened to such an indie artist at a chain store and not at the local place that day). For whatever reason, I did not buy the album and also had to pass on Paolo Hewitt’s Oasis biography, Getting High, at the Barnes & Noble next door. I eventually acquired the album, as I mentioned in the letter B, when my grandma bought me it and The Verve’s Urban Hymns while visiting.

Each song on the album is a set scene, though they do not necessarily relate to one another. I don’t often see songs in a cinematic way — usually I have all emotion and when it is very big and very good, I have an urge to find that feeling as it relates to something else I’m plodding through on paper — but Little Plastic Castle may as well be a series of short films. “Deep Dish” happens to be one of the best. “I raise a toast to all I see, each so badly behaved.”

2. Down So Long — Jewel
I love the pedal steel and a good slide guitar. I’m not a country music fan in the conventional sense (more on that in the letter E), but some of my favorite songs from alt-country to Tiger Army use the pedal steel sound. “Down So Long” has too big of a pop streak down the middle of it to really be considered alt-country, but it definitely rides the line.

Jewel is one of those artists who has sold millions upon millions of records, yet you still feel like you have to defend liking anything by her. With that abhorrent “Intuition” song and subsequent fourth album, even I’ve lost interest in anything new she does. In the beginning, I came to her as most girls around my age did. We were teenagers in search of a little love and a little hope, wondering if there was any great meaning to who we were and how best to articulate it. While Jewel is not the most insightful songwriter ever, she’s a very digestible one. Her weaknesses are on display and that can be very refreshing and appealing.

The song wonders if it’s possible to ever feel like you’ve really got it all together. After what seems like an eternity of setbacks, how much higher do you really get with each small success? And what happens when you’re considered a big success? “Different situation, different problems,” as they say — We always have something we need to deal with no matter the day.

One of the things I like best about “Down So Long” is how easy it is for me to sing along. My range is not too high and not super low, and if I were a better singer, I’d probably have the lilt of old country in my voice and go perform somewhere. Another life, maybe.

3. D’yer Wanna Be a Spaceman? — Oasis
“Oh my God, we are never going to hear the end of this song!” We were distressed. Amanda and I, along with a friend at the time who was temporarily “Mad fer it,” had watched the Live By the Sea VHS. (We had also dubbed ourselves cassettes by hooking up the stereo speakers to the TV at Amanda’s mother’s house, which was an improvement over my method of taping Unplugged — nearby boombox set to record with TV turned up full blast .) In it, Noel Gallagher has his usual few songs he sings himself. During the first round of the chorus, Noel sings, “And we can talk and find common ground, and we can just forget about... Well, I fucked that one right up.” He’s forgotten the words, and with a shrug, he says, “Well, that’s the end of that, then,” and her launches into “Sad Song” ...where he nearly drops the guitar. Prime fightin’ form, that.

We needed to hear the rest of the song. Amanda went about trying to order the “Shakermaker” single, but for whatever reason (and maybe she will remember better than I will), she had difficulty ordering it. It was a long time before we heard the song, and I didn’t have it for myself until the advent of Napster (sorry, but this band has definitely received plenty of my money aside from what I’ve downloaded – And Amanda has bought those singles more than once, so let’s call it even.)

“D’yer Wanna Be a Spaceman?” is an optimistic song about reconnecting with a long lost idea after the derailment of life. “All the dream stealers are lying in wait/ but if you wanna be a spaceman/it’s still not too late” — Amanda had that as her high school senior quote, and it’s an apt one for eighteen year old kids going out into the world. “You know what one thing I always wanted to do but never did?” will come out of people’s mouths more often than it really should, I think. We get so caught up in the time and effort it takes to do things “right” — be it going to a school like our parents want, finding a job that is just bearable enough so we can pay the bills, or whatever “practical” thing we must do — that we never put the effort into that “one thing.” We lose ourselves a little along the way. Now, of course most of us can’t just chuck everything and go live in a shack or that inspiring big city to write The Next Great American Novel (or insert your dream here). I’m not saluting irresponsibility, and neither is this song. “It’s all right/ Who’re you and me to say what’s wrong or what’s right?/ Do you still feel like me?”

That’s the important question — Do you still have the urge to do something? It’s never too late to make a go of it, even if all we can carve out in attempt only feels like half a step each day. Even then, we still show our motivation, and this song reminds us that we don’t have to forget.

4. Drag King Bar — Bitch & Animal
The first time I saw Ani DiFranco live, I had just moved to Missoula in the fall of 2001. Bitch & Animal, Righteous Babe labelmates, opened the gig at Adams Center. I’m not sure many attending had ever heard of them, and I certainly didn’t know what to expect. Two women burst onto the stage with hand drums, a ukulele, a violin and a bass guitar, rapping and singing about sex toys in their opening number, “Best Cock on the Block.” From there, they went on to talk about having “eggs” (instead of “balls”) to do something mighty (As in “That took eggs to tell that customer off like that!”), becoming unconventional crowd pleasers. They have their serious songs too, but the funny ones hooked the audience and saved them from being performance artist Ani knock-offs.

“Drag King Bar” is a lot of fun — it’s sort of “Turkey in the Straw” meets The L Word.

Then he used that line that works every time—
He said, “Hey, is this seat taken?”
I said no,
He said, “Let’s go,”
I said, “Where?”
“I don’t care, I’m a Scorpio. Take me home right now.”

The song has hand claps! Who doesn’t love a good hand clap, foot-stomp sing-along? Tyson and I used to sing along to this song every time we drove to Great Falls and back, complete with steering wheel drumming. It became sort of an odd good luck charm for the road, and now that I’ve considered that, I notice that our road trip car troubles seem to correlate to not playing the song. So here’s the real question: Which is the greater risk — Grace repeating the naughty bits or a broken car? Maybe we have to start playing it again, once she’s fallen asleep. Can’t hurt, right?

5. Dear Jessie — Madonna
Here I go with the symphony again, and once again I’m a sucker for the big production. I can’t help it. If I were a record producer, I’d blow the budget on too many additional studio musicians and spend too much time tinkering with them on the soundboard.

We always entertained the thought of choreographing something for this song in dance class but never quite got it together. It just cries out for what should be the Marlena-patented jump. Those of you who took dance with me know exactly the signature jump I’m talking about. I could give you the French technical terms, except the downside to being casually self-taught is that we forgot the names, if we ever learned them at all. Show us anything and we’d learn it well. Ask us to perform specific moves all in the third position, and we’d stare a bit blankly. I didn’t retain much more than plié and arabesque, but I can still do that jump.

I know, how is it possible to love a song talking about pink elephants, rainbows, lines like “sugar plum fingertips kissing your honey lips” and not be 5 years old? I suppose a lot of us were around that age when the song came out, but I never heard the song until middle school. The animated video did not get a lot of play in the US. The song is very much a children’s story, very cute and very innocent. It’s not so far removed from“Like a Prayer.” Both are about finding happiness and comfort, though one’s definitely the adult version. They’re both big productions with interesting videos.

While music this sweet all the time would get old quick, you’d never catch Madonna doing something like “Dear Jessie” now and that’s too bad. To paraphrase something I read once, I think I liked her better when she was a Catholic from Detroit.

Honorable Mention: Debra — Beck
The lines “I met you at JC Penny” and “Lady, step inside my Hyundai” are reasons enough to love this song. It’s easily the funniest “slow jam” I’ve ever heard, complete with the “Girl...” spoken word bit in the middle. The entire Midnite Vultures album is one great making-breakfast-on-your-day-off dance party.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Alphabet Soup: The Letter C

Glorified Love Letters to my 5 favorite songs for (almost) every letter in the alphabet, with a bonus number round.

1. Cast No Shadow — Oasis
While making my list, I set some arbitrary rules: five songs listed only in the order that they occur to me, no repeats of artists within the five songs, but with a couple of exceptions, possibly for the sake of filling out a letter. Some letters, obviously, are harder to fill than others. Even if I might have several songs from the same artist that I liked better than others that started with the same letter, I decided to pick one and work some others in. Honorable mentions are listed only to make up for gaps I have in other letters. You try and find five favorite songs that start with the letter Q, all right?

That being said, I could have gone three ways with Oasis and the letter C. “Carry Us All” has the great lines “I’m just trying to persevere with the sins I have to shake from me within” and “Have faith in what you got and it will carry us all.”

I could have gone with the classic “Cigarettes and Alcohol” — “Is it my imaaaginaay-shuuun or have I finally found something worth living for?” and “Is it worth the aggrivaay-shun to find yourself a job when there’s nothing worth working for?” — with all its Liam swagger.

I could have talked about how “Champagne Supernova” first caught my attention and my memories of my Mormon friend, Cathy, and I singing “Where were you while we were getting high?” while in 8th grade (we were “slowly walking down the hall,” after all.)

Still, I had to go with the literary theme. I had to go with the one I love both when it’s on the original album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? and when I hear it come from Noel on the MTV Unplugged session or most any other live performance. “Cast No Shadow” also has a dedication to Richard Ashcroft, whom I did not know of when I bought the album, but of course later came to appreciate the parallelism. I know that it was sort of a dedication made in an ‘I love you, man!’ drug haze and that both Noel Gallagher and Richard Ashcroft seem slightly embarrassed when a reporter brings it up, but on a very simple level, it is a nod from one songwriter to another.

“Cast No Shadow” is about feeling as though you matter. On both a literary and very real level, I am struck by the lines,“Bound with all the weight of all the words he tried to say/As he faced the sun/ he cast no shadow.” I find it very easy to feel very small, as though no matter how much effort put into a person or endeavor will ever yield the desired results. Defeat, never feeling as though you rank and trying to persevere nonetheless — I try to tackle themes in both my writing and my life. Sometimes, I succeed and those successes are enough to propel me toward trying again. Still, as we all know, it can be hard to even notice. Our focus too easily shifts to the disappointment and the despair in life, and we wonder how to cut through it all and still remain ourselves.

2. Cheeseburger in Paradise — Jimmy Buffet
By now, you’ve noticed that my dad pops up a lot in this series. He is the number one reason why I know not to only accept what is on the radio, what your friends like and what is deemed critically “important” as a barometer for personal taste. From him I inherited my singing voice (passable) instead of my mother’s (prompts toddlers to ask “Are you even trying?”), and from him I know how to tell a story. You’ve probably also noticed that I keep referring to him in the past tense. My dad died on Christmas Eve 2005 from a heart attack at the age of 50. I am absolutely gutted that I cannot share this series with him (though I don’t know that I would have shared that “Brass in Pocket” record story...).

My parents grew up in Miami. They started dating in 8th grade, went to different high schools but continued their relationship on through college and then got married. As you did when you were a Miami local at the time, you saw Jimmy Buffet play about once a year. I imagine it’s similar to growing up in New Jersey and seeing... Well, Bruce Springsteen is up a few levels from Jimmy Buffet, but say, Bon Jovi — It’s something you do, even if you’re otherwise listening to Jethro Tull or Black Sabbath.

Needless to say, I grew up hearing a lot of Jimmy Buffet. I don’t own any of his stuff now (and am glad my dad never saw his partnership with the unbearable Toby Keith), but I will always have a soft spot for him. As a little kid, you have to love a song about cheeseburgers and permission to sing about beer. As an adult, I’d have to agree that a cheeseburger “with lettuce and tomat-a, Heinz 57, french fry potat-a” almost always sounds tasty — no mayo, even! I don’t even really know the rest of the words off the top of my head except the chorus, but that’s okay. The lyrics are pretty secondary for me in this case.

The summer after my dad died, Tyson and I were back in Great Falls having a late night greasy plate of breakfast foods, and this song came on in the diner. Over two years ago, I never would have suspected that such a happy song about one of my favorite meals would make me cry. “Cheeseburger in Paradise” is less of a favorite and more of a dedication.

3. Cannonball — The Breeders
Every time I hear this song, a tiny voice inside my head says, “Rawk!” Those first opening notes are notes that once again make me lament the fact that it is hard to put music into text to better demonstrate the sound for the purposes of a list like this. At around ten years old when this song popped on the radio, I would turn up the volume, jump around the room or yes, even my bed. I had no idea who the Pixies were and how they related to The Breeders. I had no idea who Kim and Kelley Deal were — I just wanted to rock out.

On a Spring afternoon in eighth grade, I bought the album Last Splash when Hastings had a one day sale with a large portion of their used CDs for 99 cents. Honestly, it’s about the only song I listen to on the album. I’ve never given it a good, solid adult listen, but at the time, I glazed over the rest of the songs, except for maybe “No Aloha.” I suppose now I can look at it as paying the iTunes price for a song.

Some of the best rock songs are simple. I don’t play guitar or bass, but I know this song would be easy to learn if I were to try. The pauses before the tempo kicks up are really what makes the song. It’s another one of those cases where the lyrics are not exactly clear, but you sing along anyway. When I first heard the song at ten years old, I otherwise had cassettes in my collection like Janet Jackson or Mariah Carey. I own exactly zero of those artists now. I like to think that “Cannonball” became the precursor, one of the first seeds of the music to which I listen today.

4. Cornflake Girl — Tori Amos
I remember the Christmas when my dad received Under the Pink from his sister. I did not exactly know Tori Amos’ name, but I had figured out how to play the opening notes to “Silent All These Years” on my keyboard, even if I did not know the name of the song at the time. My attention to Tori Amos would not happen until the summer before 8th grade. While writing this, I’ve noticed that I mention that year a lot, but it really was the year that I suppose I became more... me. Maybe everyone does at 13, but then again, some 13 year old girls listened to Backstreet Boys and Hanson, probably embarrassed by it now.

(Okay, I’m a little embarrassed that I still like the Spice Girls. Leave me alone.)

My point is, I found a way to do my own thing and have somewhat fervently grasped to it ever since. I’ve grown up, of course, but the elements began to fall into place to accept the odd, to see other sides and to push forward that ardent sense of ego that I find necessary survive sometimes. If there is anyone off the beaten trail, it is Tori Amos. If there was ever a song that lent itself to my half-dreamy spinning and singing alone in a bedroom, it was “Cornflake Girl.” The song feels very orchestral in its arrangement — there are so many layers to notice and absorb. Of course, her writing has always been very abstract and the meaning behind what you sing really only trickles into your consciousness as you grow up, learning more upon repeated listens. Sometimes, you’re never really sure, but you’ve got a good feeling and loving the music so much that thinking about it all intellectually feels besides the point. I’m enjoying myself too much to really think about a girl’s loss of dignity, you know? And I certainly did not consider it with the Alice in Wonderland allusions as a teenager either.

Some of my favorite Tori Amos songs sound very spare and really are all about the lyrics. However, a larger part of me really loves when she lets everything loose and the big production, the overall blast of everything spilled forth feeling the most satisfying.

5. Cum on Feel the Noize — Quiet Riot, Oasis
Speaking of not thinking about songs intellectually and just wanting to rock out, “Cum on Feel the Noize” makes me smile every time. It’s designed for singing in the car high on only the company surrounding you or singing with a crowd, shouting with a drink in the air and three coursing your system already. I love the original, but the one I own is the Oasis cover, a B-side to “Don’t Look Back in Anger.”

Oddly enough, the version played at Amanda’s wedding was the original. For the first time that night, Tyson and I stood up and danced. I have no lengthy story for this song. It’s great just because it is.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Alphabet Soup: The Letter B

Glorified Love Letters to my 5 favorite songs for (almost) every letter in the alphabet, with a bonus number round.

1. Big Love (acoustic) — Fleetwood Mac
Once, my uncle Al asked my dad if it was because of him that I liked Fleetwood Mac so much. “No,” my dad said, “it’s all her.” My dad liked Fleetwood Mac well enough to have a handful of albums (all in the Stevie/Lindsey incarnation, none of the early stuff), but I don’t remember them being played all that often. Honestly, I’m not sure what made me give the band a good solid listen. When they reunited, I remember complaining that the concert was all that was on TV. Maybe something grabbed me when “Silver Spring” and “Landslide” were on the radio a lot, but I found myself picking up those old albums and eventually buying The Dance, that reunited live album. I finally watched the concert when PBS reran it during a pledge drive.

The original version of this song, a single from Tango in the Night, makes me giggle a bit at its 80s-ness. However, the re-tooled acoustic version that Lindsey Buckingham now plays just leaves me in awe that anyone can play the guitar like that. I don’t know how anyone can get that many different notes and sounds out of one instrument and only two hands. The song serves as proof that Buckingham is continually underrated as a guitarist. I’m not sure that I’ve seen him mentioned more than once whenever a roundup of ‘Greatest Guitarists’ is published, and it’s really too bad. Sure, there are times when Buckingham can be a bit indulgent, dragging the guitar solos out a bit too long, but at least while he’s doing it, he’s doing so with actual talent. “Big Love” is song that builds and builds to the point where even the odd grunts at the end do not seem all that out of place in the emotional release. This song always get huge cheers from the audience, as it did when I had the chance to see them live in 2004. It’s one of those songs that you have no idea how he begins to play it, yet you leave feeling like you’ve been trying to keep pace right along with him. It’s one of those rare songs where I barely consider the lyrics — the appeal lies entirely in the unrestrained acoustic arrangement. “Big Love” is part exorcism, part primal scream, and lives entirely up to its name.

2. Bittersweet Symphony — The Verve
I love strings in rock. My opinion of song will rise with the well-placed violin or cello (bonus points if you actually use a viola, the most unloved of the string instruments), and although I know that “Bittersweet Symphony” samples a Rolling Stones song, I use that as further proof that the Rolling Stones are usually much better when their songs are not actually being played by the Rolling Stones. When this song came out, it sounded nothing like anything else on the radio, and like any American fan in the Britpop era, I fell in love within the first measures. Prior to that point, The Verve were mostly unknown in the US, of course. The benefit of that, however, was that I now had a back catalog to accumulate. My grandma was actually the one to buy me Urban Hymns (on the same occasion she purchased for me Ani DiFranco’s Little Plastic Castle. Yay for grandmas), and even she commented on how much she enjoyed it.

My friend Amanda and I had repeated conversations on how odd Richard Ashcroft looks. The Rolling Stone cover only encouraged us at the time. This was not a case of looks being enhanced by music or vice versa, but when the music is good, that hardly matters. Still, the best description I’ve heard describing Richard Ashcroft’s face is that it’s “trowel-shaped.” I suppose that face makes the video all the more memorable.

I love how big this song arrives. The strings take hold of my attention and then when the drums kick in, if the volume is set at just the right level, I feel no different than being in the middle of a symphony hall with the best acoustics. It is the sound of a band announcing their big arrival, about breaking free from every single thing that ever held them back, though recognizing the costs along the way. “Bittersweet Symphony” is nothing short of liberty.

I don’t know if “Bittersweet Symphony” is The Verve’s best song over their entire catalog, but I never tire of hearing it. It’s a great album opener and a great introduction to the band.

3. Breakfast at Tiffany’s — Deep Blue Something
I began taking dance classes in 1987, at 4 years old. For the first four years or so, we just did whatever tap and ballet numbers our teacher, Kathy, wanted us to perform at our Spring recitals. Then bit by bit, we would start requesting certain songs or would choreograph one song ourselves. At a certain point, my friend (and Kathy’s granddaughter) Marlena was so good at choreographing us that Kathy just made sure the studio attached to her house was unlocked and trusted that we’d have something for her by Spring.

On one of these unsupervised afternoons, Marlena’s roughly 18 year old aunt, Elizabeth, came in to see what we were up to, and somehow this song came up. It was on the radio all the time, and an argument ensued over the lyrics. I don’t remember what Elizabeth insisted the lyrics were — incorrectly — but she was adamant at trying to get Marlena and another girl, Deirdre maybe, to say she was right. I’m fairly convinced she was just screwing with us, but every time I hear this song, I think of that day. Sometimes a moderately enjoyed song is magnified by the funny story surrounding it. I know that it probably doesn’t seem all that funny to anyone who does not know Marlena and Elizabeth, and I know this is one of those songs to which no one gets particularly attached, but it stuck. It’s pop, it’s one hit wonder, and that’s all right with me. This one of the few songs in this series I don't actually own, but I do smile when it comes on the radio.

4. Bonedriven — Bush (the album version or, for humor value, the ‘Mekon/Beat Me Clever’ Remix)
Speaking of funny stories, there’s one for this song too, but not without a little preamble. After seeing Bush on Saturday Night Live (more about that when we reach the letter S) and of course cementing my love forever, MTV ran a special about their upcoming second album, Razorblade Suitcase. (I know, try to recover from the novelty of MTV still giving a shit about music, but I suppose 1996 was the beginning of the wind-down into Sweet 16 hell.) The band recorded their album at Abbey Road, and in some of the footage, they showed Gavin singing along with the string quartet featured on the song. Like I said, strings in rock make my heart go a’pitter-patter, especially when the sound goes beyond the violin. I’d already prepared my very best “Dad, please buy me this CD” speech, but now I had it polished.

“Bonedriven,” the album version, is just beautiful, though a bit heartbreaking. Gavin’s voice aches with despair at the demise of a relationship and the depression that follows. “I was wrong and I will wait” grabs me on such a literary level, and it is one of those lines that is a story in itself. The song captures the contradictory state of feeling so empty and yet being so consumed by emotion that identifying a single one feels impossible.

Now, the remix — Well, the story with that is considerably more light. My friend Kristen and I had and still have a tendency to go through odd and (what we think is) funny trains of thought, particularly if we have some time on our hands. In the course of listening to Deconstructed some time during high school, we started dancing, and came up with this funny foot-hopping, arm-circling move that was intentionally reminiscent of the Elaine dance from Seinfeld. Doing it in unison (harder than you’d think) added to the comedic effect, so of course we had to show all our friends. It didn’t catch on like my dad’s “Old Man Shuffle,” but I bet a few people still remember it. I get the urge to jump up and do it every time I play the song.

5. Brass in Pocket — Pretenders
Recently, I read an article about picking a song to play in your head when trying to psych yourself up for a big moment. The song is supposed to give you that all-powering, fist in the air growl, “Yeah! I can do this!” With the lines, “I’m special/ so special/ I got to have some of your attention/ Give it to me!” this song could be that big motivator for me. The song is one huge “I’m awesome, I’m attractive, and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll do exactly what I say!” Who can argue with that?

One of my main memories associated with this song is being home by myself during the summer after 8th grade, grounded. I spent a lot of that summer grounded. I wasn’t supposed to be on the phone, nor was I supposed to be touching my dad’s records without asking, but there I was talking to Kristen and putting albums on the turntable. Kristen and I would occasionally play songs that had caught our attention over the phone to one another. Earlier in the conversation, I’d played the original “Iron Man” from Black Sabbath, as we’d only heard it from The Cardigans. Then in the process of putting The Singles on to play this song, I knocked the needle out. I looked all over the shelf and the floor, but I could not find it. Last thing I needed was to be grounded longer, so I put the record back and said nothing. My dad would obsessively vacuum, so when he discovered the missing needle, he assumed that he’d inadvertently sucked it up while cleaning. And really, I bet he did, but I never told him that it was me that knocked it out in the first place. Eventually, my parents replaced the needle, and my mom still doesn’t know this story.

“Brass in Pocket” has always been my favorite Pretenders song. I don’t know when I heard it the first time — probably on the radio — as I don’t think I was all that old when it originally came out. However, if I’m being honest, when I sing along, I’m pretty sure I’m not getting the words right, and I am probably really off key. It’s one of those songs that if you were to hear a recording of yourself singing it, you’d be horribly embarrassed. No matter though, I’ll still sing, and maybe one day I’ll be bothered to definitively know the words. I suppose it’s more about feeling than accuracy.

Honorable Mention: Beyond the Sea — Bobby Darin
Featured in the trailer for the movie A Life Less Ordinary, this song stuck in my brain enough to inspire me to rake leaves and crab apples in the backyard for 4 hours so that my dad would buy me the soundtrack. I think for the approximately $14 price tag, my dad got a deal on labor, but I still love this song.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Alphabet Soup: The Letter A

Glorified Love Letters to my 5 favorite songs for (almost) every letter in the alphabet, with a bonus number round.

The Letter A

1. All I Want — Joni Mitchell
Sometimes we try out certain artists for dumb reasons. I knew who Joni Mitchell was, of course, but I’d never really bothered to listen to her until a guy I liked played her on his public radio show, saying she was one of his favorites. He drove an old white BMW (which I rode in twice--- “eee!” say all the teenage girls out there, right?), spent a few lunches with me and we talked about music. He also had nice teeth, so to a 15 year old, that’s a good enough reason as any to try out new music. My dad had Blue, and I put it on one Friday night after the radio show had finished. While I can’t say the same for the guy, I’ve been hooked on Blue ever since. I’ve tried other albums from Joni Mitchell, and while certain songs would stand out, Blue is the only one I ever want to listen to from start to finish. I love how she sings about, well, love. Love for a person, love for where you’re from, loving where you’re at, and loving all those things even when you recognize their flaws. “A Case of You” and “River” always get the play in people’s favorite songs from this album, but I’ve always been partial to “All I Want.” Who can argue with a line like, “All I really, really want to do is just bring out the best in me and you” ? It’s a perfect opening song to a near-perfect album.

2. At My Most Beautiful — REM
While the argument that REM went downhill after Monster has some valid points, I wasn’t a college-aged kid in the 80s, and I have no problem with the song “Shiny Happy People.” You won’t find any hipster arguments (or whatever we called hipster kids — indie kids?— in the early 1990s) or declarations of “loving them since [insert early album] here. Pre-Monster REM reminds me of my parents playing the albums on my dad’s days off, while putting away groceries. I’d put the albums on while dusting the living room because they were a band I knew I liked out of the CDs my dad kept upstairs, or sometimes I would put them on when my friend Heather would come over and we’d draw in the kitchen. At the time, she claimed it was the only non-country she’d tolerate. My house was not the house of pop-country, that was for sure. Early and middle stages of REM only really remind me of the early and middle stages of my life.

I grew older, and I enjoyed most every single I heard and saw on MTV, but “At My Most Beautiful” was their first song that made me stop what I was doing, lose control of my brain and buy my first REM album out of the Hastings used bin. I recall an interview with Michael Stipe calling it his “Beach Boys” song, which I can hear, but maybe I haven’t listened to enough Beach Boys to know what they’ve written about adoration. “I count your eyelashes secretly/ With every one I whisper ‘I love you’/I let you sleep” — That set of lines would run through my head over and over, and it made me want to write about that feeling of infatuation (though wondering if I could convey it as well as I heard it through the speakers). It made me think of the potential for a person that I would have wanted to watch sleeping, save their messages and savor every bit of them, for however long it could last. Though we’re embarrassed to acknowledge it, we’re all borderline-obsessive in the really good relationships at some point, where your heart fractures with joy at the perfection upon which you’ve stumbled.

The rest of the album Up isn’t the greatest, save for “Daysleeper,” the other single. I’m glad that I only paid a used bin price to satiate my need to hear this song whenever I wanted (For that is what you did in the days when CD singles became harder to come by and yet not everyone had a high speed internet connection to bother with downloading). “At My Most Beautiful” is one of those songs that no matter how many times I hear it, I’m still in love. I love the cellos and piano, I love its honesty and I love how it plays out like a three and half minute contented sigh.

3. Angel Child — Oasis
Noel Gallagher owns a piece of my soul. Let’s just get that declaration out straight away because you’re going to be seeing a lot of Oasis on this list. The love affair began in 8th grade. I resisted at first — I don’t know why — when my friend Amanda declared her devotion to this band as the best thing she’d ever heard. When you’re 13, there is no middle ground when it comes to loving and hating things, of course. I wanted to tease her for being so obsessive and silly, but as soon as I gave Oasis an honest listen, I needed every song they’d ever release mainlined directly into my being.

In the 90s, the UK still took the business of a CD single release seriously, and Noel wrote a wealth of B-sides, providing each single with three or four additional songs. Some would argue that the B-sides surpassed some of the album’s tracks in quality, but that’s a long discussion separate from this list. What I always found most exciting about the B-sides was that Noel himself would sing on a large portion of the songs. Aside from “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” “The Girl in the Dirty Shirt” and “Magic Pie,” Oasis’ first three albums featured only Liam singing Noel’s songs, and while there’s nothing wrong with Liam as a singer, I fall a little bit more in love every time I hear the songs come out of Noel’s mouth. Sometimes it is Liam’s swagger that really makes a song, but there is a different sort of sincerity that comes through in Noel’s voice. For every “Rock n Roll Star” declaration of superiority, there is a “Where Did It All Go Wrong?” moment of reflection, and it is this duality that I love.

“Angel Child” was released as a B-side to “D’You Know What I Mean?” from Be Here Now (a rather underappreciated album, I think, even by the band itself). The song aches with melancholy, at being beat down by life and finding it hard to remain optimistic. Despite all of this, the music itself still feels hopeful — as though Noel is saying that, deep down, he knows this feeling is temporary, but how it’s so hard to see a way out sometimes. This song is a moment where wallowing is allowed. “When you find out who you are, you’ll be free,” he sings, but there is always the struggle to get to that space, and to accept what you find there. It’s an honest declaration, and an important one to hear not only in the formative period of early high school, but also as a continuous reminder through life when you’re feeling beat.

They said we would grow out of our love, and some people who hopped on the Oasis-loving bandwagon did, but Amanda is the only person I know who is still a bigger fan than I am.

4. Afro (Freestyle Skit) — Erykah Badu
Sung nearly a capella, save for one trumpet, the song stood out among the other bass-heavy songs on Baduism. Like most people, I bought Erykah Badu’s album because of “On and On,” but this short song was the one I kept putting on for friends. We all learned the words, tried to imitate her Billie Holiday-style singing, and laughed at what we saw as the punchline of the song:

Well, you said we was gonna see Wu Tang, baby
So I braided my hair
(Yes, I did. Corn rows and everything...)
Well, you changed your mind and said we weren’t goin’
but my mama saw you there!

None of our mothers were going to see Wu Tang, of course. Not every favorite song is a favorite for the deep, emotional reaction that it instills. This song is to the point, light, and mainly reminds me of goofing off with friends.

5. Alien — Bush
If I were to narrow this list down to my five favorite love songs, this would most certainly make the list. For a long time, I said that Bush was my favorite band with Oasis being a very close second. I suppose that when you’re 13 and all about making declarations, I was more the type of teenager that needed to make a declaration of my own rather than feel like I was just piggybacking on someone else’s great discovery. Over time, I became more honest with myself, and now it is Bush that is the close second to Oasis. That’s okay — Certainly I don’t enjoy the band any less.

The quiet bass line bleeds in from the ending fuzz of “Glycerine,” and the song sounds like nothing else on the album. I remember an interview where Dave Parsons ranked the song as one of his favorites, but I suppose as the bass player, he would. Still, in a band with two guitarists heavily contributing to the overall sound of the band, a bass-centric song is special. However, the lyrics make the song, and the stripped away sound serves to showcase them. One of my favorite lines in the song: “In silence we still talk/ by the light of the stereo waltz.” The swirling demo lights on so many CD players and how they light up a darkened room sets the stage of the song so well that it plays out like a story. As I’ve said before, I like a good story and I love it when it inspires me to work on my own.

Alphabet Soup: The Opening Bonus Numbers Round

Glorified Love Letters to my 5 favorite songs for (almost) every letter in the alphabet, with a bonus number round.

The Number Songs
1. 1979 — Smashing Pumpkins
If my 8th grade year, 1996 through 1997, had one band that we universally declared awesome according to our newly developed teenage tastes, it was the Smashing Pumpkins. We were maybe a touch too young to fully appreciate Siamese Dream, but Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness had us all trying to scrape together the cash for the $25 double album price tag. Enough of my friends found that $25 to where I could listen to it almost any time I wanted without actually owning it, but eventually — miraculously — I snatched it up for $17.99 in Hastings’ used bin.

1979 is wonderful, floating and every sunny afternoon my 13 year old self enjoyed. The video still sticks with me — the kids running around, spinning inside the giant tire, the old getaway car — and I always find it amazing that one album can contain something as big and symphonic as “Tonight, Tonight” and as catchy and crunching as “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” and still have room for the perfect soundtrack to approaching twilight.

2. 33 Zen Lane — Bitch and Animal
When we made the decision to buy a house in a town with less than 1000 people, I had this song running through my head on a near ceaseless loop until we signed the closing papers. Talking about living with “a big backyard to run in” and “You’ll just have to come cos I won’t have a phone,” rang true to a house sitting on a quarter acre with only one working phone jack. Before our move, however, I’ve liked this song since I picked up the album, Eternally Hard, in 2001. The bouncy ukelele and easy range makes it a great song to sing along to in the car. I think if you were to ask someone for a short list of their favorite songs and then ask them how many of those songs make great “car songs,” most of their picks would fall under both labels-- bouncy and easy.

3. 9th and Pine — Less Than Jake
I love a good horn section — I love it in a symphony setting, I love it in a jazz song, and I especially love it in a great ska song. I had limited familiarity with Less Than Jake before I saw them perform during the 2001 Van’s Warped Tour. I knew who they were, I knew what sort of band they were, and other people whose musical tastes I trusted enjoyed them, so I wedged myself into the front section of the crowd well before their half-hour set. While I enjoyed every minute of it, this was the one song that really stuck out and made me resolve to buy the album. My only complaint is that at just shy of two minutes, the song doesn’t last long enough.

They threw out stickers with the band’s name and Yoo-Hoo (they must have been one of the tour sponsors) at the end of their set, and we all scooped up what we could grab. I had two. Around an hour later, we were wandering around near the merchandise booths and I almost literally ran right into the band’s bass player, Roger. I said, “Oh! It’s you!” (In case he was wondering, right?) He signed stickers and took a picture with my friend Kristen and I, and I have that photo and sticker framed and sitting above my CD collection.

What I find especially amusing about that photo is that the kid on the far left of the photo was part of the group in which Tyson stood. He and I would be married in a little over a year from that day, but at that moment, we had not even met. He says he remembers seeing two girls having their photo taken with Roger, and out of the hundreds of people at the Bozeman Fairgrounds that day, he managed to be in the background of photos that a friend of friends, a girl named Kim Jae, took and I later saw hanging on her dorm room wall the fall when I met Tyson. She went on to date the boyfriend (who was also named Tyson) that I had at the time of Warped Tour, and I always find it amazing that a state as big as Montana can have so many crossed paths. I suppose we may all be spread out, but there are less than a million of us.

4. 16 Days — Whiskeytown
Stranger’s Almanac is probably the best album my dad ever borrowed from our neighbor Steve. Both he and my dad had massive collections, though Steve’s was helped by a Hastings employee discount. Every so often, a stack of CDs that Steve thought my dad would enjoy appeared on the kitchen counter, and I would go through them and see if anything was of interest to me. I don’t know what made me pick up the Whiskeytown album — I’d never heard of them before — but some sort of hunch made me think that I would like them. We had just added a CD burner to our computer, back when CD burners were the latest and greatest novelty and blank CDs were still a dollar or so apiece.

“16 Days” is one of the songs on the album to which I would skip ahead, one in which I somehow instantly knew the words. Though I couldn’t relate personally, I felt this song on a literary level, and when I think about it now, most stories I write have to do with at the very least, a sense of loss. The story of this song has a great opener: “I’ve got 16 days/one for every time she’s gone away/one for every time I should have stayed/ She wore my wedding ring...” It wasn’t long after my discovery of Whiskeytown that Ryan Adams began his solo career, so I suppose I also gained the warm and fuzzy-smug feeling of being ahead of the curve. Who knows how ahead I really was, but I can always thank Steve for the head start.

5. 5¢ Miracle — Slackjaw
“If you don’t stick around for Slackjaw, I will slash your tires. If you don’t have a car, I will slash your sneakers,” announced Brad — Great Falls, Montana’s most reliable of the two local drummers and part of the opening band Battery Operated Boyfriend— before the second time I saw Slackjaw perform live in the spring of 2001. This may have also been the same concert that Kim Jae ran off on tour with them until they bought her a bus ticket home when they reached South Dakota. I don’t know when or how it started, but the Great Falls music scene had quite the love affair with a band that started in Spokane, WA, and ended up in Portland, OR. It may have helped that the singer, Eric Schopmeyer, was pretty and wore eyeliner (usually a bonus in my book), but the music was good enough that I’m probably not the only one who has seen them finding themselves saying about more well-known bands, “They’re a bit Slackjaw-esque, aren’t they?”

At this second concert (the first, if I am remembering correctly, was in the basement of two brothers named John and NaNu, short for Andrew), I purchased their 1997 album Buoyancy vs. Gravity, as well as a the “2001 Tour Only” CD. Inside the liner notes of B vs. G was a short story titled “5¢ Miracle,” written by Schopmeyer. As a writer who can’t quite escape putting music into fiction, I found the pairing of a story with a song fantastic. It helped that the story — about a man who travels to Atlantic City and nearly chokes to death on a cup full of nickels — was written as well as the song. While they are perfect companions to one another, the song stands well on its own in telling the story. While I don’t think it’s an experiment every band should try, the novelty of this song and story stuck with me. Slackjaw’s Curvature of the Earth may be popular and now out print, but Buoyancy vs. Gravity is usually the album I grab first, due in no small part to this song.