Archive for the ‘Great Songs’ Category

Dixie Chicks, “The Long Way Around”

October 11, 2009

“The Long Way Around” opens and is, in some ways, the title trackdixiechicks of The Dixie Chicks beloved, multi-Grammy award winning, Rick-Rubin produced Taking The Long Way record. Or it would be a title track, except that the title is different – and, in fact, better. I hate gerund title like Taking The Long Way. “The Long Way Around” is more fearsome, robust, confident, wise. It also is a statement and a melody that Taking The Long Way doesn’t match, even for a minute, though many minutes on Taking The Long Way are truly fantastic. I don’t quite want to talk about why I find it so beautiful, so much more honest and direct than the Chicks’ songs that were specified for Country radio (although, it is much more beautiful and much more honest than, say, “You Were Mine” or “Goodbye Earl”). I want to talk about the times that come to mind when I hear it now and begin smiling. I think back to a house I lived 3 ½ years ago in Boulder with several friends, though they would probably not recognize the song when its signature, simple guitar strum begins. I used to walk everywhere with my iPod then, across town, which isn’t large exactly, but I lived in South Boulder and would walk for quite a bit. Then, because I played “The Long Way Around” so much, it would occasionally hit me that I was a 24 year old man who walked around town listening to Dixie Chicks, and how this probably didn’t entitle me to any special thoughts about myself. Regardless, the song is about engendering special thoughts to your experience, your peculiarity, to the notion of never following. Natalie Maines makes a broad swipe at her own fan base, truly, lumping her “friends from high school” who “married their high school boyfriends” and “moved into houses/ in the same zip codes where their parents live.” She could never follow. I too am nowhere near my parents zip code, but I haven’t done what the Dixie Chicks have done career wise. So be it. A line that sticks out to me, still, forever, is the line in the bridge in which Maines, who had dealt with igniting a country firestorm for blandly criticizing President Bush, says simply “It can get pretty lonely when you show yourself/ Guess I could have made it easier on myself/ But I could never follow.” Then, followed up with the a vocal tic that places her vocals amongst Country’s greats – the Patsys

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“Coming Up Close” ‘Til Tuesday

April 28, 2009

til_tuesdayMany people know that Aimee Mann – who made a name for herself in the 90’s through sharp, acerbic, eloquently flat songs of personal disgust – got her start as lead singer of ‘Til Tuesday, the 80’s New Wave band best known for their hit “Voices Carry” (that’s Mann’s stern features under that shocking blonde hair, above).  Even knowing it, how strange is it to think of those two songs coming from the same mind?  Even liking both ‘Til Tuesday as an 80’s group and Mann as an artist, the idea has never meshed.  “Coming Up Close” is ‘Til Tuesday’s best song, without a doubt.  It’s easy to miss, and I think the problem is how sincere it was – a beautiful, achingly simple tale of lovers driving in a borrowed car in Iowa, and Mann (singing) feeling that “anything I could have said/ I felt somehow you already knew.”  Maybe this is a sensation lovers often feel in moments of closeness, but the music also gives us something Mann could have said if we hadn’t already known – that things weren’t going to end well.  As the tale ends with the simple observation of a man who “got back in his car and drove away,” you didn’t just sense the heartbreak, you sensed the fleeting wonder of the moment that took place, too.  I find this song so moving that it fits with Mann’s later, colder and more sardonic work – it so nakedly displays the heartbreak that led to Mann being such an ice queen.

“Sunday Morning” No Doubt

April 12, 2009

Maybe it was Gwen Stefani’s cute red dress and pumps on the cover, maybeno-doubt it was trite, sarcastic neo feminism (“I’m just a girl, oh little old me”), maybe it was the promise of ska packaged in a pop confection, but certainly something took hold for No Doubt in 1996, the year in which Tragic Kingdom sold 16 million copies worldwide.  With the benefit of hindsight, we can say pretty conclusively that Tragic Kingdom was one of the most successful albums of the decade – not just because it spawned mega-hits “Just A Girl,” “Spiderwebs,” and “Don’t Speak,” but because it launched an empire, brought ska into the mainstream, made Gwen Stefani a superstar, who, both in 1996 and onward, influenced fashion endlessly, and simply, defined that period of the 90’s – angry but still bubbly, wild and defiant… but not that wild.  I remember buying Tragic Kingdom at a Target in 1996, learning all the songs by heart… then just a few months later learning to despise the whole thing as too popular.

One thing that has never changed for me, though, is my love of its clean-up single “Sunday Morning.”  It came late in the album with an ever loudening march of snare drums, and opens onto a bass and organ ska melody.  Since this was a band who’d cut their teeth at ska shows but got popular making unobjectionable rock pop music, “Sunday Morning” remains the single reminding us of No Doubt’s good time roots.  Yet as time has wandered on for me, for the band, for Stefani, “Sunday Morning” also seems to me the song that they really got right, the best of all their worlds.  A breakup song of sorts, it’s a kiss-off to a lover who simply “changed since yesterday, without any warning,” but then dismisses the whole thing with a mighty, sly “Oh well.”  I hear this song and there’s no doubt (hah!) why the band, Stefani, and the type of music all did so well – so much giddy, sublime angst!  A bass and drum heavy party anthem to be pissed off to and dance (er, skank?) your cares away!  Some songs from the mid 90’s now remind me of my middle and high school years with gleeful nostalgia.  “Sunday Morning” is so much better – it makes me want to kick and jump around and experience those emotions all over again.

“The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey” Joni Mitchell

January 23, 2009

joni-mitchell-260Even Joni Mitchell had to find the right words to explain her 1979 album Mingus, a jazz collaboration with the great jazz bassist Charles Mingus, and an album whose greatest ambition was to be… well, “sketchy,” was what one Rolling Stone article described it as.  The songs sort of ramble laconically, melodies buried when present at all.  Mitchell later called the record a “work in progress,” proud of its structural looseness.  I think it’s hard not to reach a similar conclusion while listening to the record, but at the same time, all looseness has the ability to turn into form over time.  Lucinda Williams has an unreleased song called “Sundays” at the end of the special edition to Lucinda Williams and swears it’s unfinished – I don’t think the song could be more perfect.

“The Wolf That Lives in Lindsay” is a battle between furious plucks of a bass, playing at a different tune of the acoustic guitar that plays high and low at once, and the hand drums that beat, well, to their own drum, appropriately.  Mitchell, though past the age in which a listener could tell her voice was going, soars to old vocal heights – “Of the darkness in men’s minds/ what can you say/ that wasn’t marked by history,” she ponders and sort of tells a story of the men and their darknesses, wandering the streets, as well as of Lindsey, who finds her own darkness expressed within.  There is one more instrument combining here as well – howles of wolves, used as a composition that actually complements all the desultory elements.  “The Wolf” isn’t the sort of song that you can pull out of a jazz record and turn into a standard, but it is one that takes hold reflecting the uncertainty and mystery of the world and wanders gorgeously with its consciousness into the dark.  The guitar, the howls, the voice, the deep pluck of that bass awaken something – fear and sadness living simultaneously with sensuality.

“Cross My Mind” Jill Scott

November 24, 2008

Jill ScottGood news: Jill Scott can talk as gorgeously as she can sing.  “Cross My Mind,” from 2004’s Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Vol. 2, is sexily, gleefully casual, opening with Scott saying to no accompaniment, “I was just thinkin’ about you,” then joined by a simple two-chord keyboard melody, “wondering if you wear the same cologne,” recorded with such a jones for Scott’s conversational tone that you can hear her lick her lips before “wondering.”  She has wondered a lot about her ex’s cologne, it seems – she asked a new lover to try the same brand and found it still didn’t match the original incarnation, worn by a man who “had that masculine thing down” and “would turn me on” just by “the way you walked into a room, across a room, out of the room.”  Bound together by a soaring melody of “You just run across my mind,” the small talk of what Scott remembers of her former lover become as warm and sensuous for the listener as she remembers them.  She eventually does this talk thing so melodically, she imagines telling her man how amazing he is, but it turns into a soaring, sexual melody of how he could “spread my limbs across continents.”  The melody of that chorus – the reason, I think, the song’s idiosyncratic talking is so effective – is so infectious, who knows what’ll cross your mind while this man’s crossing Jill’s.  Scott has a line about “sending a 2-way” that, for those of you less historically inclined, is a 2003ish reference to what texting is now, but I remember texting someone during that line too.  We’re, hopefully, fortunate to have our memories of feeling desired, of having someone that struck a note in who we were by the way they smelled or walked into a room.  I wish Beautifully Human were a more solid record – it’s too long and fancifully repetitive – but it did leave space for songs like “Cross My Mind” that soar on the reality of Scott’s experience and melifluous voice.  The woman’s so gifted, you wait for a record that’s all dirty confessions – in fact, she tried, with mixed results, two years later on The Real Thing: Words and Sounds Vol. 3, an album overwhelmed by bedroom-ready cuts.  It makes sense that Scott realized this was her strong suit – “Cross My Mind” is seduction and rationality dueling with a charm that’s like a flirtation pushed to a breaking point.

“Hoarfrost” Sonic Youth

October 3, 2008

I’ve been a fan of Sonic Youth for so long, that my thinking about what they do and have done has ruptured, evolved, and come back again.  I used to think that all of their best work was contained between Bad Moon Rising and Washing Machine in a fantastic 1985-95 decade of creativity and craft.  I used to think the work before that was naive, and the work after was scattershot and past its prime, but it’s hard to say if either of those theories hold much water.  I hear song like “Hoarfrost” from 1998’s A Thousand Leaves, and I often don’t know what to think.  It fits the vein of old, soft Sonic Youth songs like “Winner’s Blues” or “Little Trouble Girl” that are sad and wisened, and it also ushers in a Sonic Youth whose best songs in the years to come would not be the rockers, but the more introspective numbers like “Unmade Bed,” “Disconnection Notice,” or “Turquoise Boy.”  And, there’s also the Lee Ranaldo songs – Lee Ranaldo, who, like a Christine McVie of Sonic Youth, has his own brand of songs included once or twice per record.  “Hoarfrost” is a slice of mystery and life – a “view through the trees to a couple standing in the snow” that is a moment of dread, love, and satisfaction incarnate.  It’s a look of speculation written in verse that moves without quite knowing what’s occuring – in a line like, “I put my feet deep in the trakcs that you made/ walked behind you off into the woods,” you get an image of someone watching, but can’t, perhaps, equate why that rustles up a sense of withering longing with it.  In its tremulous, sculpted guitar that surrounds it, we get Lee Ranaldo at his most unguarded, we get a view through the trees worth savoring.

“Honky Tonk Women” The Rolling Stones

August 19, 2008

If you never thought a cowbell could be sexy, the opening notes of “Honky Tonk Women” will prove you wrong.  With a quick clank, you’re moving and don’t really know why, but Keith Richards’ guitar quickly justifies it – a low, throbbing strum occasionally lurching up to a rocking surface that explodes at the chorus.  It may present a simple story of many conquests whom Mick Jagger just can’t seem to drink off his mind, but what it really is The Rolling Stones at their most down and dirty charming – a bad boy rock anthem for which even the percussion is seductive.  I’m never quite sure where “Honky Tonk Women” came from – it’s not from any of the great rock records, not Beggar’s Banquet or Sticky Fingers or Aftermath or Let It Bleed, but it out-slinks and sexys every song on those records, creating bravado for the Stones’ five-man lothario army.  It’s a classic because none of its swagger – more in the music than the salacious lyrics, mind you – is remotely diluted today.

“Let It Be” The Beatles

August 19, 2008

Perhaps you’ve heard of it.  Why do artists not write anthems of the size of “Let It Be” anymore?  Let’s think about it for a second – how pretentious, how sermonizing, and how irritating would the idea of “Let it Be” sound today?  Probably like an awful joke gone rottenly sentimental or rottenly ironic.  What makes “Let It Be” a beacon of power, comfort, and genuine hope approaching 40 years after its release, though, is that sense that music can change lives, that words and instrumentation can signify a hope so grandly simple (speaking words of wisdom, let it be) that it becomes a resonant representation of all we’re far too self-conscious to say.  It’s the ultimate Taoist revolt in a song of such towering Spector production, it becomes Paul McCartney’s best song – a final rejoinder on finding peace at last; I can only imagine what someone who’d never heard sounds so genuine must have thought – people such as myself will never know.

“Ghost” Indigo Girls

August 19, 2008

Emily Sailers has written her share of deft love songs with moving lyrics, but she topped herself with “Ghost.”  “The Mississippi’s mighty, it starts in Minnesota in a place that you can walk across with five steps down.  I guess that’s how you started like a pinprick to my heart, but right now you rush right through me and I start to drown.”  You don’t find a metaphor for the kind of analysis and obsession that goes into thinking about love that’s stronger than that.  You could take issue with the heavy production that employs strings far too liberally and dramatically, but there’s a genuineness in the song that’s downright invasive, ripped from the journals you never wrote.  I could listen to the song a dozen times in a row and still feel the same intensity of the moment that’s inescapable.  I’m not sure if there’s an actual affair at the center of the song, it may just be thoughts of someone that linger, haunting like ghosts in a poltergeist movie – is she in love or just in love with a ghost?  It’s a question that doesn’t get asked enough, and this song proves the thoughts on love could trump the actual experience.

“Elizabeth, You Were Born To Play That Part” Ryan Adams

August 19, 2008

The song starts out so soft with its simple two-note piano chord, that it’s so easy to miss that the song has even started.  “For you, I’d do anything,” he says with complete unguarded hopelessness.  The melody is simple and spare, and so is the singing, Adams’s most haunted number from his most haunted album, the melancholy 29.  The lyrics could have been written by any heartbroken teenager (“I’m waiting for someone who just won’t show/ and every night it feels like there’s no tomorrow”), but with the spareness of the piano, they take the grandeur of emotional truth, elegant and piercing.  As the song crescendos with the line of “I’m caught in a dream I’m caught in an endless dream,” the piano and vocals fade out to be overtaken by an acoustic guitar melody, and the two play at once for a moment, not quite fitting in with each other.  They’re two melodies, each beautiful, struggling to be noticed as one fades and the other take shape, a mismatched love affair stripped to the glorious individually of its two parties.  Absolutely gorgeous.