Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Alphabet Soup: The Letter H

1. Happy Phantom — Tori Amos
The summer I turned 13, I probably played this song just short of, oh... forty bajillion times. When I started to pay more attention to Tori Amos, I confiscated my dad’s Little Earthquakes CD and with near constant rotation on my discman, I listened through battery-run speakers plugged into the headphone jack. Even though I liked the idea of a multi-disc changer, I was quite happy with the set-up. After all, I did not own that many CDs yet.

One afternoon, a friend came over when I had “Happy Phantom” set on repeat. After about twenty minutes, and after I’d somewhat quit paying attention to what I had on, she said, “Wait... Are we still listening to the same song?” Embarrassed, I put on a different CD. She and I had different tastes to the point where we had drifted away from each other as friends less than a year later. Probably one common trait that my longtime friends and I all have is that we’re all at least a bit obsessive about one thing.

“Happy Phantom” always struck me as a song that would do well with tap dancing moves but without the actual taps. The actual tapping sound would drown out the piano, but if I were to choreograph something for the song, there would be all sorts of shuffles done in black ballet shoes.

The song is probably one of the happiest songs I’ve ever heard about death. Tori takes the attitude that’s it just an opportunity to do the things you can’t do while alive — in her case, chase nuns, run around naked, and walk in the rain without getting wet. She realizes it is in evitable that we will all die, so she’s made piece with it. The part that always gets stuck in my head is when she sings about others who have passed to the next stage:

There’s Judy Garland taking Buddha by the hand
and then these seven little men got up to dance
They say Confucius does his crossword with a pen
I’m still the angel to a girl who hates to sin

I love the bouncy piano and the twirling bit at the end, and at a little over three minutes long, it’s just long enough. My only complaint is the high-pitched chorus is hard for me to sing along, but if no one’s listening, I attempt it anyway.

2. Handle With Care — Jenny Lewis with Conor Oberst -or- Traveling Wilburys
Just when it may seem that I’ve finally included a song that isn’t a decade or more old, it’s really just a cover of an old song. I think I’ve only heard the original once or twice, but the cover is similar. It’s hard to go wrong considering the members of Traveling Wilburys, and once again I’ve come back to George Harrison. I do enjoy a good musical parallel, though when you think about it, it’s hard to find a group that doesn’t have shades of either The Beatles, Bob Dylan or even Roy Orbison.

I first heard of Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis’ main band, when I came across a review for More Adventurous in Entertainment Weekly. Rarely do I read EW, but the issue had Hugh Jackman on the cover and Tyson brought home an extra issue lying around at work. The short piece about the band was enough to convince me that they might be something I’d like, and so I went looking for some songs to download. My thoughts on downloading are a digression for another day, but I will say this — Finding free downloads of Rilo Kiley songs led me to buying another album of theirs, and also led me to the purchase of Jenny Lewis’s solo album. In short, being able to listen to a few questionably-legal downloads made me a fan and led me to spend money on them that I might not have otherwise spent. I have much less of a disposable income than I did in high school, and it’s not as worth it to spend based on a hunch.

State of the music industry discussion aside, Rabbit Fur Coat does not have many weak moments, though I’m actually least fond of the title track. The album is more alt-country adjacent than Rilo Kiley, and “Handle With Care” catches my attention the same way Ryan Adams does. I never quite got into Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes, but he’s great here, taking over the chorus and much of the second half:

I’m so tired of being lonely
I still have some love to give
Won’t you show me that you really care
Every body got some body to lean on
Put your body next to mine
and dream on

I like the “Please, let this be effortless” desire behind the song. When life seems to throw one giant hassle and disappointment after another, having someone in your corner at the end of it all makes a difference. I rank this one high on the list of songs that, were I actually talented enough to be in a band, I’d cover every so often. I don’t understand it when some bands get snobby about playing other people’s songs, as though that somehow compromises their ‘art.’ Jenny Lewis’s cover of “Handle With Care” is a prime example of the well-placed tribute enhancing an already excellent album.

3. History — The Verve
“Bungalow” has to be one of the funniest words ever. I giggle every time I say it, hear it or even read it, sometimes followed by a Beavis-like “I am Cornholio!” intermission before I can rejoin regular conversation. Yes, but what does my strangeness have to do with The Verve? Stay with me here.

The summer I turned fifteen, my family took a road trip through Canada. My aunt, uncle and cousin from South Carolina were visiting, and we would all drive to Lethbridge, Edmonton, Jasper and Banff. In Jasper, we had booked, you guessed it, bungalows(!) for an evening. Essentially, the bungalows were similar to the minimalist cabins just a few hours south in Montana, but Oh, Canada! You just had to make me giggle with your ketchup-flavored chips, barely caffeinated soda and Bungalows! (The word ‘Banff’ makes me giggle too with the double F. Canada is nothing but f-fun, really.)

Lying in bed that night in Jasper, stretched out just so I felt comfortable and the headphones would stay over my ears, I had The Verve’s A Northern Soul album on repeat. Along with that album, I also did much listening to Ani DiFranco’s Up, Up, Up, Up, Up, in particular “Hat-Shaped Hat,” which almost made the cut for the Letter H here. Considering the titles of both of those albums, I suppose it’s appropriate that we were on a trip through Canada, though they just happened to be the albums holding my attention at that moment.

“History” has an orchestra backing that comes as sort of the warm-up for “Bittersweet Symphony” that would come later. “I’ve got to tell you my tale/ of how I’ve loved and how I’ve failed” — the sentiment is similar, though on a smaller and more personal scale, dissecting the path to the present. It’s one of those beautiful heartbreakers, an excellent song on a stand out album.

4. Happy Meal II — The Cardigans
Back when I used to be blonde, I cut my hair off into a bob that had a handful of people commenting that I looked like the lead singer of The Cardigans, Nina Persson. Prior to that, I’d heard a lot of comparisons to Jewel, what with the round face and pre-braces teeth. Since I enjoyed music from both, I took it as flattery. We came by The Cardigans the same way most Americans did — “Lovefool” on the Romeo and Juliet soundtrack. While that song is fine, I do enjoy how the band’s other songs tend to blend the breezy vocals with more meaty, sometimes darker subject matter. (I also like that, being Swedish, they almost all have double S-spelled last names, but that’s me being a word nerd again.)

Although on the surface, “Happy Meal II” seems like an innocent enough song about preparing for a much anticipated date, there’s an undercurrent of prematurity and maybe a splash of desperation.

And now I’ve found a partner
No one can be happier than I am
And now I’ve found a new friend
No one can be happier than me

I could be over analyzing it, but while on one hand this seems like a song about the first at-home dinner date with likely spending the night, to me it sounded like she could be getting a little ahead of herself. The song reminds me a bit of those girls who believe that every new guy is “the one,” Mr. Wonderful on the white horse and all that, based almost solely on the fact that he agreed to one date after she’s spent weeks pining from afar. “Make up some nice stories to amuse you/ Make things look smart and easy” does not sound like the date preparation of an established couple. Or it shouldn’t be, anyway.

However, I can also see the song from a more hopeful side. Maybe she has built up this guy, and maybe all this meticulous set dressing is only in hopes of both of them falling in love over one great dinner. Maybe it’s all just sunny optimism, but paired with the complicated content of other Cardigans songs, I wonder. I enjoy songs that are a bit of a thinker, but still retain their sing-along quality. The Cardigans have that balance near perfected.

5. Hot One — Shudder to Think
From the soundtrack to one of my favorite movies, Velvet Goldmine, I first heard this song on a CMJ Music sampler CD that came with the magazine, before I had a chance to see the movie. I have a major weakness when it comes to 70s glam rock, so it made sense that it would catch my attention. Todd Haynes’ ‘what-if?’ film that was not exactly about David Bowie and Iggy Pop during the Ziggy Stardust years made me wish I lived somewhere larger so that I could have seen it in the theater. Instead, my friend Amy and I rented it, Amy being one of the few friends who I knew would not stare at me and wonder why they’d let themselves be talked into renting the freak show. (We did that together later — leaving some of our, let’s say, more innocent friends slightly traumatized.)

Fun music, glitter, cocaine and Ewan McGregor — what’s not to love, right? Well, Ewan did look a bit greasy in this one, but Eddie Izzard and Toni Collette are both in it, and they’re two of my favorites. I also like a good music biopic, even if this one doesn’t exactly fit the definition, much like Haynes’ current film, I’m Not There. (There’s gender-bending in that one too, of course.)

I don’t know anything about the band Shudder to Think. I only know the two songs they have on the soundtrack, and “Hot One” is one of the best on the whole disc. With the piano, low rumbling guitar and bass, and almost choir-like backing vocals, the song is big and dramatic in all the right ways. It begs to be performed in front of a large audience with all the right lighting and costuming. The posturing is part of the appeal.

I haven’t seen Velvet Goldmine in awhile — probably the last time was when I rented it with Tyson when we still lived in the University of Montana dorms. Listening to “Hot One” and the rest of the soundtrack makes me realize that maybe I’ve neglected the DVD purchase for too long.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Alphabet Soup: The Letter G

1. Glycerine — Bush
For a long, long time, “Glycerine” ranked as my all-time favorite song. Now that I’m a little more honest, “Live Forever” has just ever-so-slightly nudged its way past “Glycerine” (more about that later, obviously), but it’s an extremely close second.

In the mid to late 90s, a common refrain among the teenage girl set when asked about Bush was, “Oh my god, I looove Bush. They did that song, ‘Glycerine,’ right? The singer is soooooo hot!” And yes, Gavin is hot, and yes, I was a teenage girl at the time, but I was also a smug know-it-all scoffing at their ignorance of anything outside the one single. Because of the bandwagon attached to “Glycerine,” I always felt guilty about it being my favorite, lest I be lumped into the “OMG!” gaggle. However, I can’t get around it — it’s a beautiful song.

Kristen and I always joked that, since I played cello and she played violin, that the band should take us on tour for the sole purpose of trotting us out during this song. Employable groupies, if you will. Viewing their performance at Red Rocks Amphitheater with a violinist and cellist in tow reinforced the dream, of course.

“Glycerine” is a little about lost love, a little about death, and a lot to do with fear getting in the way of making things right before it’s too late.

Everything gone white, everything’s grey
Now you’re here, now you’re away

Gavin wrote the song in the wake of his break-up with model Jasmine Lewis, and also not long after the death of guitarist Nigel Pulsford’s father. When I was younger, I tended to concentrate on the “Oh, you poor thing” aspect of his broken heart, but now being older and having the inevitable misfortune of a few deaths in my life, I see both sides now. Whereas I once saw the song as a cry for comfort, I now see it for its plain sadness and regret. The lyrics don’t really ask for someone else to come in and heal the pain, but being put out of misery might be welcome. Being a teenager and infatuated with the songwriter doesn’t usually allow for the finer points, I guess.

The vocals and guitar really have the same handful of notes over and over, so the song’s impact would not be the same without the addition of strings. My orchestral bias aside, the phrase “tugs at the heart strings” may exist in part due to the incidence of strings within emotional songs. They add an impact in a way that band instruments alone do not quite accomplish. Band instruments, rock bands included, seem more about power and assertion, and while strings can do the very same, I’ve always felt that the strings better express the heart behind the song. In “Glycerine,” they capture the loneliness and longing better than a guitar alone could.

2. Got to Get You into My Life — The Beatles
While “Glycerine” would not have been the same without the strings, “Got to Get You into My Life” would not be quite the same without the horn section. Nor would the desire come through in quite the same way without the “Ooh” preceding the lines “And I suddenly see you” and “Did I tell you I need you every single day of my life?” I may always say that having a song written for you isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but anyone would be fortunate to have a song like this penned for them.

You didn’t run, you didn’t lie
You knew I wanted just to hold you
Had you gone we knew in time we’d meet again,
for I adored you

It’s a love song without complication, a declaration. I love the joy and I love how it is sung in a way that wants everyone to know. This is one of those songs that it feels like overstatement to go on and on about. If you’ve heard it, you know why it’s good.

3. Got My Mind Set on You — George Harrison
I will admit I’m not 100% sure if the title starts with “I Got” or just “Got,” and The Letter I has a full roster, so I may be cheating here. No matter. Also, this song falls so face first into the 1980s that it is well removed from being a second cheater Beatles song in the letter. (Hey, it’s my list, my rules, no quibbling!)

In liking this song, I admit I did not always know who sang it. At first, it was one of those songs on the radio that I found myself enjoying, even when I had a low tolerance for music coming out of that decade. It may have been high school by the time I bothered to find out the artist behind it, and I don’t remember if I sought out the information or realized it by accident. With many of the 80s hits, it’s easy to assume that they may have been done by a band that had the one big song and then carried on a modest career in Germany or some other quiet, semi-noticed existence away from the US charts.

What I do remember is flipping through albums in a West Yellowstone record store with my friends Brittany and Amy, wondering if they happened to have George Harrison’s solo album. Brittany and Amy were big Beatles fans, and while Amy preferred John, Brittany liked George, though she did have an affinity for Ringo. We were on a high school biology trip, and after dinner one evening, we were permitted some free time wandering around the town. I’ve always liked West Yellowstone. It’s part of the one corner of the park located in Montana, and even though Wyoming has more of the National Park in acreage, Montana likes to pretend they can claim ownership. West Yellowstone is technically just outside of the National Park, and the town has a great accumulation of sites: good restaurants, the grizzly and wolf discovery center where you can see the animals up close, the IMAX theater, and of course, an assortment of places to shop. An odd little record store in the middle of all the tourism would maybe have an album that one normally did find other places. Honestly, I don’t remember if Brittany found the album — I don’t think so, but maybe she did — but I do remember how we discussed how different this song was compared to, say, all the sitar-heavy stuff from the previous decade.

I love the drum beat that lends itself so well to hand claps, until there are actual hand claps about a third of the way through. The horn section uplifts, and I love the sentiment “This time I know it’s real/ The feelings that I feel/ I know if I put my mind to it/ I know I could really do it.” It’s easy to sing along to the song, with only a few different sections of lyrics repeated throughout the song. Sometimes repetition like that can get tiring, but here I feel it works.

Despite my semi-ignorance of the Beatles up until roughly the past three or so years, I’ve always had a soft spot for George Harrison. I can’t quite identify why, since it wasn’t exactly a musical connection. Maybe it had to with my tendency to pick someone different from everyone’s first choice, in this case of course the John/Paul team (Brittany’s the only person I’ve met who’s expressed a preference for Ringo). Maybe it’s the story from Oasis’s “Talk Tonight” where Noel Gallagher met a woman who said he resembled a young George Harrison. It could be a reason as shallow as that, but at first I knew more of George Harrison’s biography than his music, though nothing extensive in either respect.

When he died, I felt genuinely sad in the same way you do upon hearing a relative to whom you were not particularly close dies. I laid in front of the TV for an entire day watching the news stories and specials on his life. I’ve been known to watch every episode of Behind the Music whether I cared about the band or not, just wanting to soak up more musical knowledge for the mental encyclopedia, but the death of George Harrison felt more important than that. Maybe the fact that illness had withered away someone who had contributed so much struck me, or the feeling of history passing in the same way as the news stories sound upon the death of a former president. Despite any mistakes made in that person’s life, I value the reverential tone taken when commenting upon the whole of their contributions.

4. Gravel — Ani DiFranco
When Ani DiFranco plays “Gravel” live, the venue damn near explodes with sound. Somehow she manages such a big song with little more than an acoustic guitar, and when I last heard her perform at The Met (now the Bing Crosby Theater) here in Spokane, “Gravel” had to be the loudest song in the set. She comes back to town in April, this time playing at a coffee shop. I can’t imagine how massive the song will be there, should she play it. From the album Little Plastic Castle, it’s one she tends to classify as “old and crusty,” though this one pops up more often in set lists compared to other songs from the album. It’s a great story of “I love you, I hate you, I just can’t kick you.”

As with many of her studio albums, that explosive energy doesn’t quite come through in the same way. I’ve heard more than one person, Ani included, say that the songs don’t really get their legs until they are heard live. It’s true in a lot of ways. Prior to seeing her play at The Met, the songs from her newest album at that time, Reprieve, had not really wormed their way into my brain until I heard her play some of them that night. I hear the studio albums in a different way after hearing the songs live, and her live albums get a bit more play than the others on my stereo.

However, like I’ve said before, Little Plastic Castle is the album that brought me to her first. What I thought was great coming out of a studio session improves even more hearing it live. Since three years passed between my owning of the album and the first time I saw her live, and then five years passing until the next time, the songs are happy surprises in the set lists. As fans of hers know, she puts out an album about once a year — there’s a wealth of material she could be using. I hope I can see her play at The Service Station coffee shop this spring.

5. Gutters Full of Rain — David Gray
Before he was Mr. Sensitive of the pop radio set, David Gray had a more rough, busking-style edge. He also used to sing in an accent that wasn’t entirely his own, but he’s since dropped that too. I know it’s typical to say “Oh, you should hear the early albums,” but I must insist here. Even though I enjoyed David Gray’s last album, A New Day at Midnight, I will admit that he’s not as interesting as he used to be.

I can’t claim to be an early fan. I came in right at the same spot most Americans did with the album White Ladder. WL straddles the line between his more folk early years and the radio-friendly artist he is today. I saw the video for “Babylon” on 120 Minutes and later bought the album at a Virgin Megastore in Denver, Colorado. The one nice thing about discovering an artist midstream in their career is that there’s a back catalogue to accumulate. Unfortunately, it took at least another six months after the November I bought WL for the previous three albums to gain US distribution.

Oddly enough, I also bought Sell, Sell, Sell in a Virgin Megastore, though this time at the one located in Downtown Disney, Florida. It’s funny to spend roughly $14 for an album whose cover art has a bunch of 9.99 stickers on it, but when my music shop choices at home were either Target or Hastings, I couldn’t trust that I could find the album later. This was just before everyone began to order or download online, of course.

“Gutters Full of Rain,” even though it comes near the end of the album, caught my attention the most during my first few listens, due in no small part to this bit at the end:

Light another cigarette
but the one I got’s still lit
I can’t seem to keep my fingers

Never noticing the war
‘til it’s right there at your door
And suddenly your hands are bloody

The song ends just seconds after, and I immediately backed up the track and had to listen again. I’m fond of the cigarette-as-indicator-of-stress imagery, which probably explains why I have so many characters who smoke, even though I do not. There’s so much to convey with a cigarette, even right down to the significance of the brand smoked, that I just can’t disregard in our smoking ban society.

Of course, I’m not only fixated on the cigarette. I’ve commented before that it’s hard to see what is wrong with a relationship from the inside until it ends, and the last three lines there sum it up better than most. He doesn’t sing the song to anyone — it’s more of a moment to self-reflect, wonder aloud, and let himself feel like shit for just a little while longer. I’m fascinated by different forms of grief and how people write about it — “Me like a million/ others before/ trying to make sense of the rain.” In a way, this song reminds me a bit of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, but that’s a literary essay for another day.

Honorable Mention: God Shuffled His Feet — Crash Test Dummies
“Mmm Mmm Mmm” may have been the bane of radio DJs’ existence, but this entire album is underrated. One winter in Missoula, Tyson and I were playing pool in the University of Montana game room, and the guy working the desk put it on. He seemed surprised when I complimented the choice.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Alphabet Soup: The Letter F

1. Full On — Oasis
My reaction to this song must light up the exact same portions of my brain as would Vicodin just kicking in, or a perfect, strong cup of coffee sucked down at just the right temperature. The same portions would burn as bright as when I catch a whiff of Tyson’s cologne not worn in awhile, or when I see Daniel Craig in action (a sidebar worth discussing another time). I have such an immediate gut reaction that I want to condense that feeling, bottle it, and then mainline it directly into my system.

I hear my heart beatin faster
I feel it in my bones
I want it now cos I have ta
and why, no one knows

In short, this song turns me on.

I heard “Full On” for the first time less than two years ago, although the song is a B-side to the “Sunday Morning Call” single, from the 2000 album, Standing on the Shoulder of Giants. Somehow along the way, I’d missed it, and what a shame it took so long. “Full On” is unlike most Oasis songs, and definitely unlike the usual Noel-sung acoustic heart-stealers. With a howling, rhythmic crunch of electric guitars and piano keys as percussion, it takes the amazed attraction of “I’m alive when you walk that way” in the song “Step Out,” and turns the lust to eleven.

It’ll be all right
if you stay tonight
It’s where we both belong
It’s gonna be full on

The song could be about sex, drugs or both, but that doesn’t matter. The feeling behind wanting those things is the same, the end result is the same. Every addictive personality out there knows what I’m on about, and it’s lucky that I let my addictions manifest themselves in mostly caffeinated and musical ways. In writing about this song, I’ve probably hit ‘repeat’ twenty times, and I’ve not tired of hearing it yet. That about says it all— it’d be redundant to try and articulate the feeling any further.

2. Flagpole Sitta — Harvey Danger
I can hear you groaning already, but I really do love this song. Then again, maybe since it is one of those songs that gets stuck in your head for days, it is infectious in a way that makes me believe that I love it.

In the same way that I make fun of hipsters now, this song pokes fun at the 90s version of smug trendiness masquerading as counterculture: indie kids. I find much of the song funny, but the line that makes me laugh the most has to be “I wanna publish zines and rage against machines.” We all know that guy — the one wearing the Che Guevara shirt, a Bob Marley patch on his backpack full of his xeroxed political poetry, saying things like, “I’m really into world economics right now.” Wander into any diner near a college campus and you’ll find him with a cluster of friends, all nodding and chin-stroking, all competing for the most profound cultural observation. Each decade will give them a different name and the tightness of their jeans will change, but the personality will never cease. I suppose that’s all right — occasionally one of them actually produces something culturally relevant instead of only lamenting over what they see as the dearth surrounding them.

You could argue that by making fun of them I’m just as bad as any hipster, but would a hipster genuinely love a song most likely to land on a 90s one hit wonder album, and love it not in an ironic way? Maybe not. Yeah, yeah, I know — Everyone is judgy in their own special way.

Aside from being funny and catchy, “Flagpole Sitta” one of those songs that you may not immediately remember the title, but you and your friends will still know and sing all the words, likely in a bar after tossing a few back. The alcohol will let you forget that you’re still supposed to be tired of this song, even a decade later.

3. Flowers in the Window — Travis
I came to Travis by way of Oasis. They toured with the band, and Oasis has a history of picking good openers (Well, maybe not Cornershop, as entertaining as “Brimful of Asha” was). “Why Does It Always Rain on Me?” had some play on the music channels, and Amanda had seen them on the tour and enjoyed them. I have the first three albums, and although I sometimes forget about them, I always think “I should really put these guys on more often” when I do listen. Grace has taken a liking to them, so we’ve heard the second album from which this song comes lately more often. I have yet to hear the most recent album.

Believe it or not, the strings were not what drew me to “Flowers in the Window” first. Probably in a subconscious way they affect my opinion, but what I love about this song is how happy it is. For all the great songs about complication and heartbreak, I find it refreshing to find one so full of joy with maybe a splash of nostalgia.

You are one in a million and I love you so

There are plenty of seasons to feel bad, sad, mad
It’s just a bunch of feelings that we’ve had
to hold, but I am here
to help you with the load

I’m reminded of late spring afternoons where the weather finally warms up enough to not need a jacket all day. They come with a sigh of relief, an easy and leisurely meal outdoors, and for a moment, life feels completely satisfying. All the better to share it with people you love, of course.

4. Falling in Love — Lisa Loeb
My brother is easy going to the point that his older sister can convince him to do just about anything, including handing over one of his CDs in exchange for say... cleaning his room, once. I’m not sure why my brother had the second Lisa Loeb album, Firecracker. My dad had her first album (and despite my persistence, would not let it disappear into my room until years later when he finally couldn’t remember the last time he had listened to it), and really, I don’t know if my brother paid all that much attention to what my dad was playing. Maybe he’d seen Lisa Loeb on MTV and thought she was cute, I don’t know, but I wanted that album too. No way was my brother, a casual fan of music in general, going to have a semi-neglected CD in which I had genuine interest. This was before the age of CD burners by a couple of years, and with little convincing, my brother decided that it was easier to just let me have the album than to have me bothering him about it.

I maintain that the best position in birth order is to be the oldest sister, preferably with a little brother. Jack is in for it with Grace, I bet. Or I’m in for it, if they are both strong-willed, right?

With my determined battle for ownership behind me, I now had the time to really get into Firecracker, and I was pleased that I liked it just as much as I’d enjoyed the first album (11-year-old me may have played “Stay” about 40 bajillion times at the height of its popularity). I like the way that Lisa Loeb can tell a story within a song in the same manner a country song might, without actually producing country music. “Falling in Love” might be a little country, with lines like “She wanted to be a cowboy/ She was shootin’ ‘em down,” unhurried strings and Ryan Adams-esque acoustic guitar.

“The time between meeting and finally leaving” — In four minutes, this song fleshes out the headfirst tumble into an intense relationship that can hardly be absorbed until after it has ended. A movie could come out of this song.

Well one night while sleeping alone in her bed,
the phone rings, she woke up
and sat up and said,
“What time is it...
What time is it?”

“Well it’s 5:30 here and it’s 2:30 there, and I won’t be home tonight,” he said.

Near the end of the song, I love the quiet reflection on the relationship after the fact: “The grey sky was romantic because he was holding her hand/ He was her man.”

I wrote an entire story about a depressed man falling in love with a woman with varying degrees of crazy, set on the abandoned lighthouse-filled coast of Maine, inspired entirely by this album and Fleetwood Mac’s “Sweet Girl.” Since I was still in high school, the quality of the writing isn’t that great, but it may be a story worth revisiting sometime.

5. Feel to Believe — Beth Orton
Seventeen Magazine is not exactly known for broadening readers’ musical tastes, but a review probably not any more than 100 words caught my attention. My friend Heather’s sister had a subscription to the magazine, and I’d flip through them when I was over at their house. Perhaps Orton because was an unusual last name, or that an album called Trailer Park could be described as electro-pop and had interesting cover art, but I bought the album based on that review. I’d never heard a single note, but it ended up one of my favorite albums. There’s not a bad song on it. When the second album, Central Reservation, came out a couple of years later, I picked it up.

“Feel to Believe” stands out from the other songs in its simplicity — it’s just Beth and her guitar singing about finally getting out of a relationship past its prime. She’s not angry, but she’s realistic that it’s best for them both. “I won’t waste a single second/ living in hell like it’s some kind of heaven” — Most everyone fails to come to this smart realization right away, and I know I’ve failed before. I’ve failed to notice while listening and singing along to this very song, even. Every good failure, I think, always seems clear from the outside. In the middle of everything, it’s easy to try and cobble together the bits and pieces that drew two people together, but it’s just scotch tape on the inevitable.

Like “Angel Child,” this song tries to find the hope within difficulty.

If one truth leads to another,
isn’t a one that we can’t uncover
There isn’t one that we cannot discover
It’s the right time
It’s our time
It’s our time to discover

I don’t know if I’m drawn to certain songs because they remind me of my book, or if the ideas for my book that I’ve worked on in some form for a decade now come from my favorite music. I realize I’ve mentioned the book a few times without going into details, but since it’s in the sprucing up stage, I’d rather not summarize. Hopefully it’s enough to say that it means a lot to me, although I hope I haven’t developed a relationship with it that mirrors this song. I hope that I am not in the middle of something that would benefit retirement so that I can move on to better things. Maybe I do have better things within me, but I just have to get this one down and out of my system. I’d rather not the phrase “kill your darlings” apply to entire book to which I’ve invested so much time.

Perhaps I like these songs of despair because I doubt my path in similar ways. I like knowing someone else is in my boat even if it’s not the same situation. I think the difference between realism and optimism is that realism means searching for that optimism and not staying passive in the assumption that good things will come. Perhaps nothing good comes when I’ve not worked for it. I have a hard time believing in winning life’s lottery and that just a random assortment of events will make my life grand. If anything, I can become suspicious of sudden good fortune — “You know it/ You want it/ You just can’t believe you’ve got it” — wondering if I really did get something right, trying not brace for the other shoe to drop but at the same time realizing that it could happen. Songs like this remind me to pause, find patience and to remember that good efforts will be rewarded.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Alphabet Soup: The Letter E

1. Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight— Whiskeytown
You will never see me turn to the country radio station or CMT. Really, most of what is on there makes me nauseous, what with all the “Jesus Take the Wheel,” “I don’t know the difference between Iran and Iraq” (An actual line from a song! I wish I were making that up!) and the idea that “empowered” country women should just smash a guy’s truck if they have a problem with him. Most of it is absolutely horrible.

How did we go from Johnny Cash and Hank Williams to crap like Toby Keith and Kelly Pickler? When did the songs that resemble old country music turn into the label “alt-country?” Where along the way was it acceptable to wander away from the folk roots and turn into a bizarre, homogenized and very insular cash machine? Why is that popular with so many people? I may never understand it.

Ryan Adams is still alt-country adjacent, but this one from his old band has all the twang of an Emmylou Harris song, and I mean that in a good way. A good country song should stir the soul in the tradition of a great spiritual but be as far away from a megachurch as possible. It should speak to the heart but still be light on the cliché. The best sad songs should feel as though your own heart is both breaking and filling at once.

Whereas some country songs about a bad break-up have one big sob story about what the other person did to them, this song does not want to let the other person take credit for their state of mind. If “this situation don’t seem so goddamn smart,” and even if that other person is at fault, it’s hard to not feel like a jerk for even letting it happen in the first place. I find it a little delusional to think that relationships end with only one person to blame, but realizing that can be just as heartbreaking as the end of the relationship itself.

The very first time I heard this song, it cemented itself in my list of all-time favorites. I find it impossible not to sing along, and the ache behind the song makes me want to write. Unfortunately, the sort of writing I end up wanting to do after hearing a song like this is the kind that makes me forever dissatisfied that I have not accurately conveyed the heart-crunching complicated love I often try to tackle. The song gets it so right that anything I do feels sub-par. I try to use my favorites as inspiration to do better, but it’s hard not to feel like a hack. While sometimes that leads to endless tinkering, even a sad great song fills me with such possibility and hope that I know I can do better.

2. Eleanor Rigby — The Beatles
In a Portland community college music room, the conductor handed my sixteen year old self the sheet music with the cello solo. “You’re the first chair. Try it,” he said. I probably only landed every third note, but damn if it wasn’t a lot of fun. The college’s first chair obviously had a great deal more practice than I, and she sounded great. That afternoon in 2000 was the first time I’d ever heard “Eleanor Rigby.” I loved it, and yet I had no idea what the words were. The first time I ever heard the song “for real” was just a few years ago on public radio.

It’s true, up until recently I had only a casual relationship with the Beatles’ music. I knew a lot about the Beatles, I could tell you the titles of a good chunk of their songs, but as to what songs came from what albums and when? Forget it. I admit I became familiar with “I Am the Walrus” mostly because Oasis covered it. My mother only has only a handful of Beatles albums (She claims that she has Meet the Beatles, which she received when she had the chicken pox as a kid, but I’ve never seen it, so who knows what happened to it) and my dad’s general attitude toward the band was “Enh — they’re fine, I guess.” Because my mom would never venture into the cold basement only to put on a record, The Beatles did not get regular rotation in my house. Even now, I’m definitely no expert, but I own Revolver now and I am acquainting myself with the music I neglected to notice.

Since I heard “Eleanor Rigby” only in an instrumental form at first, I still respond to the music first. I know that the song is supposed to tell a story, and we’re all supposed to know Paul McCartney for the memorable lyrics, but I find myself pantomiming bow movements. Although I spent only one afternoon with the sheet music, it’s the sort of song that fills me with the urge to take up the cello again, track down that solo piece, and this time, play the hell out of it.

3. Extraordinary Machine — Fiona Apple
I love the word extraordinary, and I wish it got more play. Containing two words not said as two words (i.e. ‘ringside’ or ‘pancake,’) Extraordinary just rolls off the tongue in a satisfying way.

Linguistic nerdery aside, Fiona Apple’s voice is just as much of an instrument as the orchestra backing her. I love a big Jon Brion production — He has a way of making a song with a lot of instruments still sound light and airy, and there’s always a lot going on without seeming overwhelming. Although Fiona’s voice is supposed to be the focus, the song would not be the same were it not for the whole package. Pizzicato strings! An oboe! When does an oboe get play outside of the classical concert hall? If the viola is the most unloved of the string instruments, then the oboe has to be among the most unloved of the woodwinds, maybe save for the bassoon.

Hearing this song once will have it stuck in my head for days, but it’s a great song to have taking up room in your brain when you’re just trying to persevere.

If there was a better way to go,
then it would find me.
I can’t help that road just rolls out behind me.
Be kind to me
or treat me mean,
I’ll make the most of it, I am
An Extraordinary Machine

It reminds me of a symphony-backed, more elaborate version of Oasis’ “Roll With It.” While that song says “You wanna be who you be if you comin’ with me” Fiona says, “I’ve been getting along for long before you came into the fray.” I suppose the difference between the two is that “Roll With It” tries to make room for another person, whereas “Extraordinary Machine” seems indifferent to whether or not it will work. I tend to agree with the “Roll With It” sentiment more than the willfully self-sufficient Fiona Apple, but it’s still a great song. I did not have room for “Roll With It” in the letter R, but much of reasons why I like the song are the same as this, so I’m sneaking it in under the letter E. Of course, it’s the drums that get me on that one, not an oboe.

4. Evaporated — Ben Folds Five
Though Nick Hornby is my all-time favorite author (maybe a Glorified Love Letter for another day), I haven’t read his take on this song in Songbook in well over a year. I don’t think we’ll talk about the song in the same way, but I do appreciate it when interests developed independently from one another converge.

Woke up way too late
feeling hungover and cold.
The sun was shining bright
and I walked barefoot down the road.
Started thinking ‘bout my old man
and it seems that all men want to get into a car and go

I’d be hard pressed to think of a better set of lines that sum up numb dissatisfaction, a side of depression, and the urge to just chuck everything. “Evaporated” rides the line between heartbreaking and beautiful, something Ben Folds manages to do in a lot of his songs. The crescendo of “And I poured my heart out” comes out as both a sob and a defiant declaration before sighing to a close. Ben Folds songs (with or without the Five) always have a story to tell, and the literary side of me enjoys that. I can relate to certain aspects of the songs, but the songs are not my stories, and it becomes less about the specifics and more about the mood.

The song also features a cello, and I think by now we all know how I feel about that.

5. Elsewhere — Sarah McLachlan
“You had it so long, I just bought another copy,” my dad said to me one afternoon about six years ago. The funny thing is, I did not even realize that I still had the actual album, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. The burned copy sitting my collection had led me to believe I had returned the CD. I suppose the plain spine on the case made it easy for it to get lost in its row. My dad bought the album when it was new in 1993, so the CD case still has the black plastic where the disc sits and it weighs about a ton compared to cases today. Our musical tastes would overlap just enough that “Hey, I want my CD back” came out of our mouths probably a lot more than other Father-Daughter relationships. We were never particularly close or particularly distant with each other, but we always had music to discuss.

Like a lot of people in the mid-90s, I noticed Sarah McLachlan more when “Building a Mystery” never stopped playing on the radio. I remembered the name as one I’d seen while dusting the stereo cabinet in the living room, so while my dad did not have that latest album, I wanted to check out the earlier work. If I’d been a little older, I’m sure I would have known her from MTV, but when I put on the album, I registered it as something semi-familiar, maybe heard in the car.

I could have picked about any song from this album for the list, but I needed one for The Letter E, a letter that was a little harder to fill than I expected. However, “Elsewhere” does happen to be one of my favorite songs on the album. When I listened on my own terms, I was struck by how well her music could convey the mood behind complicated love — “I’ve got to live my life the way I feel is right for me/ It may not be right for you/ but it is right for me.” What I especially appreciate is how she does not state her feelings in an angry, rebellious and teenage way. She sings in a very matter of fact way how happy and in love she is, and that “I believe this is heaven to no one else but me.” Approval from others does not matter so much because if she really has made the right choices, then eventually, everyone else will come around. As someone who was fresh from a break-up and announced an engagement one month into my relationship with my now-husband, I can get behind a “Just trust me” sentiment. We’re going on six years — longer than all three of Jennifer Lopez’s marriages combined, right? — and of course, there will be many more.

I also find Sarah McLachlan very conducive to writing, writing that pours out without meandering over the right words, which probably explains why I finished writing about this song for the week first.