Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Alphabet Soup: The Letter L

1. Live Forever — Oasis
If “Live Forever” is not played at my funeral, if possible, I am coming back and haunting whoever is responsible. So if you’re that neglectful person, you better just hope that the whole afterlife thing didn’t work out so that you don’t have me running up your water bill by turning the faucets on and off in the middle of the night or using my ghostly powers to... I don’t know... leave your car upside down in your driveway every single morning, maybe. Fair warning.

“Live Forever” is not only my favorite Oasis song, but as I said before, it is my favorite song of all time. However, I don’t always stop everything to listen to it. I have heard the song so many times that it often feels as natural and undeniable as breathing. “Live Forever” appears on no less than half a dozen albums, singles and mix CDs of live performances in my collection. It has permeated my life in such a way that it is not the song I immediately turn to when I need an Oasis song to move me — nearly every song of theirs moves me in some way — but sometimes I am in that moment where I do stop everything and listen. In the same way of being able to inhale after a cold clears, “Live Forever” will grab hold of me, reminding me why I love the song more than all others. Sometimes rolling off “Shakermaker,” blasting Definitely Maybe on a sunny morning will do it. Other times, when I hear the words acoustically performed by Noel Gallagher, it’s akin to hearing a familiar work performed in its original language. In fact, every time I hear Noel himself sing these lines, I wonder if “Glycerine” would be such a close second favorite if it didn’t have strings:

Maybe I will never be
All the things that I want to be
Now is not the time to cry
Now’s the time to find out why

Anyone who ever said that Oasis seemed to only care about acting out and giving attitude clearly never gave the music a closer listen. The unabashed optimism runs through even the heartbroken songs, knowing that although life could get worse, it almost never stays that way if we put forth the effort to improve.

Maybe I’m being overly romantic, but how could I not love a song saying that although life has not yet worked the way we wanted, “I think you’re the same as me. We see things they’ll never see.” One of the greatest motivators in life is knowing that I’m not in it alone. Having someone who loves and believes in what you do can make all the difference. I’m not necessarily talking about having a romantic significant other (although that person can contribute to this role— and should if they’re worth keeping), but of having any sort of supportive person in your life who inspires. The more people in my life that fill me with the satisfied breath of possibility, the better.

“Live Forever” inspired this music project, the idea of this site celebrating the things that I love, and it has inspired my life in so many other ways since the first time I heard it twelve years ago. My love for this song and this band makes me look past the years of misbehavior and embrace every arrogant statement as just an amusing part of who Oasis is. In a way, I believe that anyone who has made me feel this way can afford to say, “I know that I’m the best” because I agree. And when anyone tries to say differently, my brain cannot quite process the possibility.

Though my favoritism is the main reason for wanting “Live Forever” to be played at my funeral, I also want everyone to leave me on an up note. If there is an afterlife, I do not want my last send off to be so solemn. I require that unrelenting optimism that life will move on and improve long after I am gone.

2. Lumina — Joan Osbourne
I can’t believe the nose ring was fake. If VH1 is to be trusted (so, maybe not), Joan Osbourne did not actually have a pierced nostril in her ever present video for “One of Us.” And here twelve year old me thought she was so cool and “alternative.”

Joan Osbourne was another one of those musicians that my brother inexplicably had, despite the fact that I never remembered him showing an interest until I showed an interest. He had both Relish and a live album of hers, and I still have neither, save for downloads of this song and “Right Hand Man,” and a cassette dubbing of the full album buried somewhere in a box. Unlike Lisa Loeb, I never convinced him to give me the CDs.

The summer after the album came out, my family and I took drove down to Yellowstone National Park with friends of my parents and their two children. Forgetting that we’d need music for the drive down and back, not to mention all the driving we’d do in the park itself, no one had packed many cassettes. My parents had the Forest Gump soundtrack, someone else had Alanis Morrisette and we had Relish. I had to take a short break from all of those songs due to overkill after that vacation.

When a friend from high school covered “Lumina” at one of her shows, I was somewhat surprised that she knew it. It had been awhile since I had heard it. Probably six years had elapsed since the album, and “One of Us” is usually the only song people associate with Joan Osbourne, but I’m guessing more people remember the song and maybe not her name. It’s too bad because her talent really is beyond a hypothetical think-aloud about God.

“Lumina” starts with a quiet electric guitar and organ that sound quite like The Wallflowers album that came out a year or so later. It’s a simple and beautiful ballad that stands out from her more up tempo, blues-y numbers. There are lovely lines throughout like“Melting inside/melting away/like butter in a pan” and “Here is the place/now is the time/ let’s invent the kiss.” At three minutes long, it’s the perfect closer to an underrated album.

3. Log — Ren & Stimpy
“What rolls down stairs
alone or in pairs
and runs over your neighbor’s dog?
It’s great for a snack,
It fits on your back,

It’s log, it’s log!
It’s big, it’s heavy, it’s wood.
It’s log, it’s log!
It’s better than bad — It’s good!

Everyone needs a log,
You’re gonna love your log,
Come on and get your log,
Everyone needs a log, log, log...
Log— From Blammo!”

Like the theme to “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” this is one of those songs that people of a certain age and a certain sense of humor know by heart, no matter how much time has elapsed since they last heard the song. Ren and Stimpy were great for theme songs— Between this, Muddy the Mudskipper, The Royal Canadian Kilted Yaksmen and “Don’t Whiz on the Electric Fence,” they provided hours of demented entertainment to my childhood. My dad liked to watch the show as well, though he’d always say, “I can’t eat while watching it.” Looking back on the extreme close-ups they’d do— snot, nipple “knee warmers,” hairballs and etc.— I can see why.

I’ve never seen any of the new episodes that aired on Spike TV a few years ago. Somehow, I’m thinking it just wouldn’t be the same. “No Sir, I don’t like it.”

4. Lord Only Knows — Beck
To paraphrase former tour-mates The Flaming Lips, Beck is the sort of guy who takes a limo and then wonders what everyone will think about him taking a limo. He may be very talented and has done very well for himself, but I imagine he might be a little annoying to hang out with. Still, Odelay remains a great album over a decade later. Most of it crosses his sense of 70s funk-rock with Dust Brothers beats, but “Lord Only Knows” is a semi-country slide guitar number as sing-along as the rest, closing with the funny line “Going back to Houston to get me some pants.”

I received Odelay for Christmas the year it came out, and I enjoyed the Hungarian sheepdog on the cover because it was a white version of Gavin Rossdale’s dog, Winston (r.i.p). I liked “Loser” from a few years prior, and the song afforded him the option of a higher production value – there’s a lot going on in every song, and the sound is worlds away from “MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack” and other early lo-fi offerings. The lyrics range from seeming nonsense to almost straightforward. Beck seems to operate on a playing field about a hundred feet left of everyone else, so it’s not always clear what point he’s getting at in his songs and yet I don’t really mind. “Lord Only Knows” seems to be about feeling run-down and lowering standards enough to make it easy for others to take advantage.

Invite me to the seven seas
like some sea sick man
you’ll do whatever you please
and I’ll do whatever I can

I suspect it has a lot to do with creative freedom when you’re no longer working for yourself, but it’s also a total bar song. Not one that hypes up the crowd, but more of a jukebox nodder or an oddball karaoke pick. “Your senses are gone, so don’t you hesitate” applies very well to that scene.

I haven’t really kept tabs on Beck’s music since Midnite Vultures. I have Guero, but I hardly ever put it on (maybe I should). However, in writing about “Lord Only Knows,” I found myself listening through the rest of Odelay and remembering how much I enjoyed it. Beck has fallen into the self-important end of artistry, but I suppose when you release one of the better albums of the 90s, the chances of “keepin’ it real” all the time run slim.

5. Life Uncommon — Jewel
When it comes to religion, I’m a confirmed fence-sitter. I don’t have any reason to believe one way or another, so I stay put on the line and figure that I will find out eventually — or not find out. If I’m dead and that’s it, well I guess I won’t be finding out anything. The thing I don’t understand about evangelists — besides their tendency to not like anything that’s not white, straight and Republican (unless you’re a child in an impoverished country)— is that they think they can “educate” a person into belief. Isn’t the whole point of faith that you can’t manufacture it? You either got it or you don’t. Having faith is supposed to be personal, not something you’re badgered into either by upbringing or social climate. Right?

“Life Uncommon” is the closest I get to faith. I have to believe that if you’re a good person who cares for others and embraces the differences in us all, if there is some sort of cosmic ethics board out there, then he/she/they won’t hold it against you for not believing in the first place.

We must give to live
Lend your voices only to the sounds of freedom
No longer lend our strength to that we wish to be free from
Fill your lives with love and bravery and we shall lead a life uncommon

I like that the song takes the attitude that the world would be a lot better off if some people weren’t so busy condemning (or giving patronizing prayer to) those who don’t believe in their specific brand of faith. All you need is love, after all. “If praying were enough it would come to be/ Let your words enslave no one,” she sings. She presents the song as a spiritual, but in the simplest sense. “Life Uncommon” is clear and passionate, made for singing along.

I am moved by faith in basic human compassion, and the rest is just superfluous. I don’t think that my actions should be motivated by wanting to please some deity with a different set of standards depending on which book you read. The thinking that life is just some vague points system with a theoretical big reward at the end doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t feel it to be true, but I don’t begrudge those that do, so as long as they treat everyone with love and respect, no salesmanship involved.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Alphabet Soup: The Letter K

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alphabet Soup: The Letter J

1. Josephine — The Wallflowers
I like a name in a song title, and I’ve been known to lift a good name from a song for character use, even if the character does not exactly resemble the person named in the song. Call it a cheater method, but it’s not all divine inspiration, you know.

I also like the reverential song directed toward a woman. Don’t mistake this for the yearning to be the subject matter myself. I’ve had happy songs dedicated to or written for me, and while that was all very flattering, I’ve also been at the other end when the relationship goes sour. While being able to write about the beginning of love and sorting through the rubble at the end is beneficial and cathartic to the songwriter (and very satisfying for the listener), I’d rather not be personally involved. I get more warm and nostalgic feelings from hearing “Sara” by Jefferson Starship, and that song is on the deep end of cheesy. It goes back to keeping just enough personal distance between song and temporary relationships. I’m not about to let anyone who did not better my life (romantically or not) ruin a perfectly good song, myself included. When I’m at fault, I don’t need the punishment to extend to my musical collection.

No, when I say I like a reverential song for woman it is because women are fantastic, and it is fantastic when someone notices. We’re all flawed, but in a certain light, some women seem to rise above it all. “Josephine” is a song that gets that appreciation just right.

Josephine, you’re so good to me
I know it ain’t easy
Josephine, you’re so sweet
You must taste just like sugar
and tangerines

I end up spending a good deal of time contemplating how to best articulate the great qualities in the people I write about (fictional or otherwise), much in the same way I have tried to talk about the songs that I love. When it comes to real people, taking the task lightly does a disservice to everyone. To write reverentially about someone is to also reveal something about yourself. While I am an open book when asked, volunteering my adoration does not come without some trouble. The awe can be so close to my heart that to open it up to criticism is intimidating. Even now, I’m not sure what to say. Public displays of affection have never been my style, nor am I a public mourner. To that effect, I often wonder if I come off insincere or indifferent when the complete opposite is true.

Bringing Down the Horse is an album that I love, yet I managed to neglect owning it. So many of my friends had it when it first came out that it seemed ever present until one day I found myself thinking of the songs and no longer had immediate access. The Wallflowers have ended up as a tiny blip on the late 90s musical radar, but they had good songs, save for maybe their cover of “Heroes.” For someone who tried so hard to separate himself from his musical pedigree, Jakob Dylan had a hard time escaping comparisons to his father. Maybe if he hadn’t been the child of one of the greatest songwriters to ever live he would have had a better shot at longevity.

2. Just a Phase — Incubus
For all my yammering about not letting music get too attached to a specific person, Incubus’ album Morning View will be forever tied to when Tyson and I first started dating. This was our “Oh hey, you haven’t heard the new album? You should definitely come over and listen to it, ahem, wink-wink, nudge-nudge...” album, as many relationships that begin in college have. However, since we’re now coming up on six years married and have two children together, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to have some music attached. Not only was the music excellent, but we could bond over the dreaminess of singer Brandon Boyd, culminating in that fine balance of lusty, intelligent conversations. And then some making out. Lots of making out.

I don’t know that I’d say “Just a Phase” is one of my favorite songs on the album (J is a harder letter to fill), but it’s still an excellent one. Incubus is a band that has a lot of detractors, for one reason or another, and this song is a response to some of them, mainly those coming from bands who are not as good.

I know that I sound opinionated
maybe biased and quite possibly jaded
but sooner or later they’ll be throwing quarters at you on stage

Who are you and when will you be through?

If I’m remembering correctly, much of the song is directed at the singer from Creed. And although Incubus’ last few offerings have not been as great as some in the past, they’re still around and (blessedly) Creed is not. The song serves as a reminder that although there are plenty of annoying people out there, if you do your best to disregard them, eventually they will get what they deserve.

3. Jackie’s Strength — Tori Amos
Whenever I put on From the Choirgirl Hotel, the album from which “Jackie’s Strength” hails, I think about the year I was in our high school’s production of The Wiz. My friend Marlena had a hand in some of the choreography, though most of it came from a guy who thought he was a divine gift to the theater department because he’d once been in Cats. It was the first year we didn’t quite have ourselves organized enough to do our regular dance class. In fact, almost everyone who had been in our dance group the year before was involved with the musical. Marlena, Maureen and I were chorus members and because we had real dance experience, we were the saucy Poppies. Theresa played the Scarecrow, and I think Amanda may have been in the orchestra. Theresa was probably one of the biggest Tori fans I’ve ever met — She would half-jokingly say that because she was adopted, taking her age and Tori’s hazy whereabouts around the time she was born, that Tori Amos was her birth mother. The album following this one, To Venus and Back, came out on Theresa’s birthday while we were in Wiz rehearsals, only adding fuel to her theory. She and Marlena bonded over their love of Tori together.

We were all spiraling away from each other in small ways during that time, separate personal lives drawing us in and out of the connections we had. Teresa missed a few rehearsals and the director had Maureen learn the Scarecrow part just in case, I imagine causing friction between them. Marlena attended school just enough to be involved with the play. I had a tail bone injury that almost had the director sack me entirely. Being someone who had more ties to the community theater productions and not the school, we had no loyalty to each other, though I kept putting my face out there, trying to get the theater department to notice. The fact that I can’t remember if Amanda played in the orchestra bothers me because I’m only using logic (“Well, she was first chair viola, so...”) and not actual memory. Though I my friendship with Maureen and Theresa had only come about because of my friendship with Amanda and Marlena, we were not on the same orbit anymore, instead becoming different lines of existence that would intersect on occasion. We had boyfriends, we had other friends more on our orbital paths, and we all had our own set of troubles to work out. I started to miss those afternoons in the dance studio, but that’s the nature of friendship.

“Jackie’s Strength” has the same sense of melancholy nostalgia. Tori Amos relates Jackie Kennedy to overcoming personal struggles, finding balance in relationships, thinking back to different times in life that were at once wonderful and complicated.

So I turn myself inside out
in hope someone will see
make me laugh
say you know what you want
you said we were the real thing
so I show you some more and I learn
what black magic can do
make me laugh
say you know you can turn
me into the real thing
so I show you some more
and I learn

Whether we realize it or not, we’re constantly adjusting our presentation while desiring companionship, both friendly and romantic. In a way, friendship is romance. It’s a back and forth process of recognizing the admirable traits and wanting to be the best person for the other. And since romance is also a little about narcissism, friendship also sometimes revolves around the idea of “I like you because you have some of the best qualities I see in myself. Won’t you see them in me too?” Opposites may sometimes attract, but I find that sameness — more intersecting orbits — provides longevity.

“Jackie’s Strength” is a beautiful song filled with the slightly disjointed storytelling for which Tori Amos is known. Even when I’m not sure if she’s talking about herself or some complex metaphor tumbling from a character she’s created, I find her songwriting strength lies in making her mental fragments, seeming cohesive to her mind alone, feel personal to the listener.

4. Janie Jones — The Clash, Bush
Yet again I heard the cover before the original. Give me a break — I was 13 and just got my mitts on a Bush bootleg entitled Suck It and See. Despite the stupid name for the $20 CD, and despite the fact that the bootlegger decided to bleep out the curse words (Why title a CD something like that and yet bleep words?) I was thrilled to get the b-sides “Old” and “Broken TV.” This song came in near the end of the disc, introduced with “We’ll play a song we wrote a little while ago and gave away.” Of course, with my musical horizons not quite so broadened yet, I didn’t get the joke then.

The guitar riff that is half-circus theme, half-whatever the “Meow Mix” song comes from (I played it once in orchestra, but I can’t remember who did it now) is wonderful, chaotic punk rock mixed with steady drums, topped off with plenty of cymbals. The bass gets in a prominent rumble, and the whole thing is a lot of fun. The Bush cover stays pretty faithful to the original, though they bleed into “X-Girlfriend” at the end, which ends up working well.

Probably the best use of “Janie Jones” I’ve heard is in the Martin Scorsese/Nicolas Cage movie Bringing Out the Dead. The song plays over jumbled scenes of ambulance calls, showing the mix of insanity and weariness that comes from night after night of that type of intense employment, a funny riff on the line “He don’t like his boring job.” In the movie theater, my friend Kristen and I couldn’t help but quietly sing along.

5. Just Getting Older — Oasis
“Am I cracking up? Or just getting older?” Despite my relatively young age, the days where I think “Ah, screw it. I’m tired. All I want to do is have a drink and go to bed” can sometimes outnumber the days I don’t. While I don’t have a previous decade’s worth of wild and over-the-top behaviour tied to my public image like Noel Gallagher does, the surprise at one’s own exhaustion is something to which I relate.

It’s nine o’clock
I’m getting tired
I’m sick of all my records and clothes I bought today

Lines like that probably would not have crossed Noel’s mind in the 90s, or if they did, he would be less likely to commit them to song. After years of running around meeting a million people, never sleeping, always having to be go-go-going and doing something, now all of the sudden everyone has children, divorce settlements and forty years on Earth approaching. More and more, his songwriting has focused on the idea of lying back and not necessarily be required to do anything. The songs have an attitude of “Feck it, if I want to be left alone for an evening, then I’m damn well allowed by now, aren’t I?”

What’s funny about a song so focused on age dialing down the energy, it isn’t just a “man and acoustic guitar” production. Near the one minute mark, it progresses from something simple to backing music that almost sounds like a choir, and the sound grows bigger and more defiant from there.

And I bet that this is how life
turns out when you’re finally grown
And you know if this is my life
I’ll sit around all day and moan

The chances of Noel Gallagher slipping into completely idle retirement are slim, I’m sure, but the focus of life as a musician has changed. The extra-curricular stuff holds less importance. I read an interview with him around the time Stop the Clocks came out, discussing all the lifetime achievement- type awards he and the band were receiving that year, where he said, “We’ll let everyone kiss our asses for a little while, and then we’ll get back to work.”

As entertaining as some of their “off our heads” moments were a decade ago, as I’ve grown up, I’m glad they have as well, to a certain degree. It would be too heartbreaking to have my favorite band cease to exist because they tried too hard to sustain the type of craziness that’s only fun for so long. Maybe that makes me (or them) sound boring, but I don’t need my favorite bands to be like Pete Doherty. Anyone who pays any attention to Oasis knows that they’re nowhere near the danger of slipping into, what my interweb-friend Katy likes to call, “yoga and lentils” territory. The rock n roll attitude remains alive, though occasionally it would like the night off.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Alphabet Soup: The Letter I

1. Idler’s Dream — Oasis
When I heard “Idler’s Dream” for the first time, the noise that came out of me fell somewhere between a gasp and a sigh. The song is so breathtaking and beautiful that even though I have it listed first under the Letter I, it is the last song I sat down to write about this week out of desire to convey my love just right.

My heart, it skips a beat when I behold
The light that’s shining through your eyes of gold
From heavenly blood you seem to spring
From heavenly waters you can drink

Laugh at me all you want, but that awe described in those four opening lines spills out of me in the same way when I hear this song. I’ve formed the sort of personal attachment to Oasis that any description never seems to fully encompass, and lord help you if you so much as suggest they are mere imitators. Their songs have seen me through every major discovery about myself, inspired me in ways that I may spend this whole list trying to articulate, and insulting them feels like an attack on my conduct. (“How very dare you,” indeed.) I am in love, and there is no way around it.

“Idler’s Dream” is a post-drugs, post-divorce, start anew B-side filled with piano, a cello and backing vocals much like REM’s “At My Most Beautiful.” It catches a moment of hesitation, a moment of disbelief when good things start happening again, as though they’ve only tumbled into his lap when he wasn’t paying attention.

I hope you don’t break my heart of stone
I don’t wanna scream out loud, wake up on my own

The longing and trepidation mixed together, the waver in the voice — When have we not felt that at one point or another? The song stands right where we bring ourselves to the line of vulnerability and decide whether or not to cross.

And as I close my eyes and the sky turns red
I realize just what you are
You’re an idler’s dream
and you’re singing Shangri-La

I love the imagery of keeping your vision even after your eyes are closed. The last four lines are the most resolutely delivered of the entire song, which then dissolve into a sigh of relief. With a lack of instruments normally used in Oasis songs, “Idler’s Dream” is like the perfect little secret song, pocketed within its bigger single. It earns the love it receives by simply existing.

2. I Saw Red (acoustic) — Sublime
Again, I may be cheating. I have the sneaking suspicion that this song might be called “Saw Red,” but the Letter S could have 50 different songs in it if I wanted, so I’m squeezing it in here. There are at least three versions of this song out there, but I prefer the acoustic take. I knew no shortage of guys who learned the song on their guitars, but I’ve always wondered what a good female cover would sound like. Maybe Sublime has not been away quite long enough for a re-imagining outside of the former members of the band.

Sublime is one of those bands reminding me that I can’t let certain people ruin music I otherwise enjoy. I’ve learned that developing a personal relationship with music should stay much more connected to myself than have it be attached to others. Discussion of my favorite songs is supposed to be about positivity, so I won’t go into why Sublime was nearly ruined for me. The important thing is that after a period of distance, I came back around to the collection of songs I enjoyed. While I wouldn’t count Sublime as one of my favorite bands, they’re a good time (and sometimes I get to sing in a little Spanish I can understand).

Of course, Brad from Sublime had a little bit too much of a good time with his life, and that’s why he’s no longer around today. “I Saw Red” (or “Saw Red”) deals with the crazy up and down feelings, and the complicated personal relationships that come with drug use.

Say it’s black, I don’t believe you
I say it’s white, you say I’m trying to deceive you
I’m aware of the high and the low
I’d be waiting for you in the middle
but I just like control

I prefer the acoustic version because it sounds more heartfelt than the ska-adjacent speed-through of other versions. The content seems to be taken more seriously, though it’s not a cautionary tale either. “Woman hold your man tight, if it makes you feel right/ It’s your own life,” he sings, after all. I have this song on a mix with other, what I like to call, ala carte bands like No Doubt — bands I haven’t spent much money on, but have a chunk of songs that have me singing along with enthusiasm. And of course, Sublime and No Doubt collaborated on the excellent song, “Total Hate” before anyone outside Orange County really knew who they were.

Sublime has the unintended benefit of a limited catalogue that ended with their highest-received album. I remember when lots of people still didn’t know that the singer was dead even as they bought the music. The videos just seemed to have a dalmatian theme. Sublime’s rise up never had the chance to slide back down into boring mediocrity, although the band formed with the remaining members has, and I don’t remember what they called themselves. I didn’t even bother squeezing myself into their crowd when they played one of the Warped Tours I attended. Like other bands with an unintended end, Sublime gets to be remembered fondly instead of hearing lamentations of when they went musically downhill. Even when the dalmatian passed away, MTV read an obit.

3. I’m Afraid of Americans — David Bowie
“Whatcha watching?” my dad asked me one evening, poking his head into my room.

“David Bowie concert on MTV,” I answered. I was in high school.

“Yeah... He was just a little too weird for me.” With that, he wandered off in search of another can of Diet Pepsi.

One thing I always liked about my dad’s musical judgement was that he wasn’t the sort of dad who imposed an ‘ethics and decency’ code to what I listened, within reason. He did tell me no when elementary school aged me asked for a Madonna album near the time of the Sex Book (which I’d heard of, but didn’t really care about). However, in telling me no, he just left it at that. No specific judgements. When Marilyn Manson became popular, he shrugged off the controversy by saying, “It’s not really any different than what Alice Cooper did.” I don’t know what sort of crap I would have listened to in an effort to bother my parents if they’d been the type to place restrictions. (Honestly, if I’d wanted to bother them, I would have just needed to turn on the country station, but that would have been cruel to all of us.)

I love this stage of David Bowie, breaking out the reddish hair, eyeliner and drum machine in a new way. That concert on MTV was probably my best introduction to his music, though I had passing knowledge of his songs before that early point in high school. If I remember correctly, someone else was supposed to play the concert and David Bowie filled in at the very last second, working out even better for MTV. Earthling had just come out, and everyone was talking about the collaboration with Trent Reznor. I don’t give a fuck about Trent Reznor mostly because I don’t think he gives a fuck about anyone other than himself (though I do like “The Perfect Drug”). No, “I’m Afraid of Americans” caught my attention because it had a disjointed dance beat, rocked out just enough at the chorus, and even though David Bowie had just passed fifty, he was hot. Eyeliner done right does set my little heart afire, of course. As usual, the man was not quite like anything else out there in 1997, and I had to love the Alexander McQueen-designed Union Jack coat. Between that and the guitar Noel Gallagher toured with, the mid-90s were a very good time for the British flag as accessory.

The production on this song is top shelf. Listening to the sound bounce back and forth between headphones, I hear so many different layers without those elements overwhelming the other. The breakdown at the end picks up the song in just the right spot, saving the song from the chorus repeating in the same way again. The fact that a song like “I’m Afraid of Americans” could come out of the same person who did “London Bye Ta Ta” or “Young Americans” amazes me. The man shares a birthday with Elvis, so that day in January must be a particularly good one should a person want to breed any musical revolutionaries.

4. I Want You to Want Me — Cheap Trick, Letters to Cleo
I can’t find the mix CD with this song. In process of going through my pile of mix CDs I’ve made over the years, I managed to collapse three out of the five shelves where I store half our CDs. The only version I could find was one from NOFX, and they mix up the words on that one. Like I said, this is a list all about positivity, so I won’t go into how very irritated I am at my disorganization and the mess I’ve left myself.

Every time I hear “I Want You to Want Me,” I am compelled, no matter how many times I may have said it to present company before, “I love this song.” Yes, I’m aware that it basically has the same couple of verses over and over. And yes, I know Cheap Trick and “all-time favorites” probably don’t often occur in the same sentence, but it really is one of my all-time favorite songs.

I also enjoy Letters to Cleo’s cover, which was on the 10 Things I Hate About You soundtrack, a movie which really isn’t as bad as some people like to pretend it is. (I could do a better comparison of the two versions... if I could find my CD.) Unlike some other cover songs, I don’t think this was my first exposure to the song, though I don’t have any story about the time I first heard the original. It’s just one of those songs that’s been on the radio just often enough to avoid overkill, though I’m sure the same can’t be said for the time it was first released. On more than one occasion, I’ve sung along to distract myself from the stress mixed with boredom in driving long distances.

I think my reasons for loving the song come down to simple factors: it’s optimistic, it’s easy to learn the words and it has the undefinable, catchy quality that makes it so easy to stay humming through your brain. I’m just happy when I hear it. My reasons for loving other songs might be more complex, but not everything has to be a thinker or a heartwrencher.

In Las Vegas visiting family, Tyson met Cheap Trick’s singer at The Four Seasons during the winter of 2001. We had just started dating, and he and I talked a lot while away from each other. He laughs now about his “Whatever” attitude meeting the guy, now knowing how much I love both this song and “Surrender.” What I find funny is that I can love those songs and yet not have a particular interest in owning any of the albums. In fact, I probably listen to the Letters to Cleo version more often, though I’ll happily take it either way.

5. I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine — Beth Orton
Speaking of cover songs, Beth Orton’s version here is the only one I’ve heard. Up until today, I only had the suspicion that it was a Ronnettes song, since Phil Spector has the writing credit. I finally looked up the information, and confirmed my assumption. I do know that this is one of the most beautiful songs about heartbreak I’ve heard.

Baby, do you know what you did today?
Baby, do you know what you took away?
You took the blue out of the sky,
my whole life changed when you said good-bye,
and I keep crying

It’s the anti- “better to have loved and lost...” and is not a song delivered with perspective. Beth Orton sings as though quietly surveying the aftermath, alone and awash in the despair that comes from the end of a big love. The song could also fit for someone who has passed away, as though both people would have gone on to do so many things together, and “now they will die and never come true.” It’s easy to see both ways.

“I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine” stands out the same way “Feel to Believe” does on Central Reservation. Both are the second to the last songs on their albums, near-closers that grab my attention with their spareness and honesty. While the rest of the albums’ songs are excellent, the two are almost worth the album price alone. I think on every album, Beth Orton has one song so easy to love that seeking out the next collection feels absolutely crucial.

Honorable Mentions:
I Love You, Suzanne — Lou Reed

I heard this song first from an Uncut magazine CD sampler, and it was one of the best songs offered. I don’t know who Suzanne is, but I love how Lou Reed sings about her: “I love you when you’re good, babe/ I love you when you’re ba-a-ad/ You do what you gotta do/ But I love you, Suzanne.”

It’s Oh So Quiet — Björk
Björk may be one of the only true originals on this planet, though maybe there’s an argument for the possibility she’s not from Iceland or any other place on Earth. “It’s Oh So Quiet” is another one of those big productions of a song that I love, all the better for Björk’s ability to let loose and be as big as the instruments backing her.