Call me maybe…

Of all the things to get stuck in my head…

I know this is a two year old song by now, but it’s still great. I ran across this the other day when looking for the clip of the Afghan Whigs on Jimmy Fallon, which apparently has been taken down — but I think that’s another story. I much prefer this version to the official music video, which actually kinda gets on my nerves. The official video buries the fun and the melodicism of the song, and Fallon and the Roots (how do you get the Roots to be your house band, anyway?) uncover it again here. The lyrics are simple and fun — not overdone, they perfectly capture the rush of a crush just starting out. The classroom instruments lend this version an innate innocence, sunniness, and optimism that fits perfectly with the song, and I guess you could say with first love itself. It just proves again that it’s not what you play, it’s how you play it. Who would have thought that little plastic instruments could produce such a magical sound? They sound like a marching band whose color guard is made up of unicorns with rainbows for tails doing backflips over the band, for crying out loud. Impossible not to smile when you hear this. Remember about eight years ago or so, when every pop song sounded like a marching band? Yeah, I liked that, because I’d been in a marching band in high school that was pretty awesome. Good memories brought back by that sound. Classroom instruments aren’t quite it, but they can be close, especially when played by someone who knows what they’re doing — and the Roots & Fallon do.

I don’t think I’d heard of Carly Rae Jepsen before this, or if I had, it hadn’t really registered. She’s Canadian, apparently, and did pretty well on a reality talent show up there, which is how she got her start. Not my type, but if I were in high school, maybe she would be. She looks like she’s having fun in the video, which is the important thing. I like how she tosses her shaggy hair back and forth, and how her voice soars above the ruckus of the toy instruments on the chorus. I also like how nobody is sure what’s going on right before they start — everybody is giving everybody else the side eye while Fallon fiddles with the backing click-track thinger. ?uestlove also sticks the kazoo back into his mouth backwards after the whistle break, which is kinda fun. Certainly not one of the greatest moments in Western art music, but hey, everybody needs something fun every now and then, right? Play as many times as you need to feel good — I think I’m on #45. (I lost track.) Anyway, enjoy the song.

Safe Up Here With You: the Twilight Singers’ “Hyperballad”

Welcome to my latest obsession. I finally gave She Loves You, the Twilight Singers’ 2004 album, a metaphorical spin the other day. (Now that I have Spotify, I’m chocking in some of the holes in my musical knowledge.) It’s an album of covers, but the one that absolutely jumped out at me right away was “Hyperballad”. The through-composed style, the restrained instrumentation and vocal by Greg Dulli, the thoughtful, vivid imagery of the lyrics, the band’s dreamlike performance, relaxed yet hyper-focused…I could swoon. The restless, chiming guitar and yearning, soaring synth lines play off the trudging, rolling beat perfectly, lightening its steps until it becomes as welcome as your lover’s heartbeat. Dulli has been known to chew some scenery at times (“My Time Has Come” from Powder Burns, anyone? I mean, HONKEY’S LADDER?), but here he wholly feels the subtle soul of the song and his unselfish, out-of-himself delivery is totally right-on. He doesn’t even monopolize the choruses — they’re sung in unison, a lovely hymnic touch, like choral music. Trance gospel blues indeed.

The lyrics themselves are something special. Bjork’s words picture someone going out to the edge of a cliff early in the morning and pitching random things off. Then she watches them fall, intent on the sound they make, and doesn’t look away before they hit the rocks below. She wonders what it would be like to throw herself off, and would her eyes be closed or open? It’s both a metaphor and an psychological snapshot from daily life. The words picture the daily choice we must all make to love our person, our people, whoever they are, whatever the cost. They celebrate the daily sacrifices we all make that our partners, our children, our parents, our friends, never see or know, but that we make unceasingly, day by day, so we can stay with that person. The throwing things off the cliff is at once both a purgation, purifying, cleansing, and an act of renunciation — this is what I can do without.

The song also hints that this is for the sleeper’s protection, or the narrator’s — “this is so I can feel safe up here with you.” Maybe these are the things that the sleeper or the narrator would be tempted to use on each other, once the sleeper awoke and the day resumed its endless march until night. Maybe it’s better to throw those things away, whatever they are, before they get used on someone you love in a moment of anger and there’s no going back: these are the things I have to, need to, do without. But whatever you throw off the cliff every day — anger, pride, wondering how things would be different with a different partner or a different life — it’s never worth as much as the one who sleeps through the predawn ritual of pitching stray objects off a mountain precipice and meditating on their fall and smashing. For that person you throw everything you can lift, everything you can possibly bear to part with, and then some, off the mountain. Everything except yourself.

Kudos to Bjork for being honest enough to admit about thinking about throwing yourself off a cliff. Kudos also to Dulli for seconding her startlingly honest thoughts by choosing to cover this standout song. He knows what it’s like to kill yourself slowly, or to realize that if you don’t change your path you’ll end up dead. This song is about pondering the path you’re on, and ultimately deciding that it’s the right one. You want to be “safe up here” along with the narrator, because that’s what they want too.

Just expressing these kinds of compulsively honest, or dark, thoughts are enough for most people to give you the side eye, if not respond with outright alarm. With good cause, of course…but sometimes you just wonder. The ability of the human mind to play out “What if?” is one of our greatest strengths, and one of our biggest downfalls too. We play with temptation or create fantasy worlds, indulge in magical thinking and act accordingly…and real people, who care about us, get hurt. (Here’s where Dulli’s natural knack for the dark, the twisted, the addicted, the turned-out, yet also faithful and still somehow feeling despite it all, shines through.) Sometimes “What if?” is enough all on its own, as a question in the mind. Always make the choice to be present, to remain, to be steadfast — for others, and for yourself.

we live on a mountain
right at the top
there’s a beautiful view
from the top of the mountain
every morning i walk towards the edge
and throw little things off
like:
car-parts, bottles and cutlery
or whatever i find lying around

it’s become a habit
a way
to start the day

i go through this
before you wake up
so i can feel happier
to be safe up here with you

it’s real early morning
no-one is awake
i’m back at my cliff
still throwing things off
i listen to the sounds they make
on their way down
i follow with my eyes ’til they crash
imagine what my body would sound like
slamming against those rocks

and when it lands
will my eyes
be closed or open?

i’ll go through all this
before you wake up
so i can feel happier
to be safe up here with you

The Smirk

Lana Del Rey b & w loungerSo I put on some music the other day when we had another couple, friends of ours, over. It happened to be “Video Games” by Lana Del Rey — I’ve really been into her sound lately, I think she’s got something unique and interesting to say, and that’s why I chose it. My wife asked what it was, because she knows I’m a muso & I secretly (not so secretly) want to talk about it, and I answered, “Lana Del Rey.” I saw a smirk pass across my friend’s face. He managed to suppress it pretty quickly, but it was still there and I saw it. I thought, “Screw you, buddy.” [More or less…] The conversation moved on, but if it hadn’t & I could have spoken freely, here’s what I would have said:

  1. I like what I like, OK? I ascribe wholeheartedly to Louis Armstrong’s dictum that “there are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music.” It doesn’t matter if it’s pop, jazz, big band, metal, reggae, indie twee, or Gregorian chant, if I think it’s good, I’m down, I’m into it. Life’s too short to live by other people’s opinions of what’s “cool” or what you “should” listen to. Forget that. Go find the things that trip your trigger, that make you want to create.
  2. Have you ever listened to Lana Del Rey? Do you actually know what her music says and sounds like, or do you get your information second or third hand from the Internets? Again — are you letting other people tell you what is cool, and what to like or not to like? If you’ve listened to her and you think she’s a poof, then fine. But if you haven’t listened…what room do you have to smirk?
  3. Who says that pop music can’t say something insightful, acerbic, accurate, or profound? Who says it all has to be stupid teeny-bopper music — and even if it is, can’t it still hide some critique or commentary on our society? Lana Del Rey’s got a lot going on, if you listen to her lyrical viewpoint and watch her videos. She throws darts at the inflated corpse that feminism has become, and it drives people crazy. This is a big, big part of why she’s so attacked and vilified. She harks back to a time when people could actually speak freely and act freely, because they were under societal constraints (paradoxically enough), yet people’s ways of life were not so dislocated from human nature. Nowadays, we’ve been taught that everything we feel or want to do is bad, and the opposite is good. We have it drummed into our heads not to pay attention to what we see or think is true, and instead to hold only certain corporately approved opinions and worldviews. I, for one, think that’s crap. I think a lot of young people, especially, who don’t have a lot of life experience to show them what’s wrong with the world, but they look around and they go, “There has to be something else other than this. This is the best you have to offer me? I want something else. I need to go find what it is.” Lana Del Rey, and other dissenters and originals along with her, offer a plethora of different paths, or at least give young people a starting point.
  4. Besides, Lana Del Rey is just awesome at what she does. Ignore the flaming and the media hate, and observe the woman and listen to the music. Is she the dumbest person you’ve ever seen, or one of the smartest? Is she being gauche or poetic, dead dumb or dead-on? It’s yours to decide, but she gives you enough to work with that you keep guessing. You can never fully make up your mind, because you’re not sure how much of it is a put-on, a pose, and how much is real. Besides, when did authenticity become such a gold standard for pop stars anyway? Everyone is acting like she’s a fraud because she uses a different name than she was born with and she happens to have a wealthy father. Does no one remember any of the scads of artists and performers from music history who have used different names? David Bowie, anyone? Madonna? Even Joe Strummer was a diplomat’s son named John Graham Mellor, for crying out sakes. People need to lay off Del Rey and let her do her thing — which she will anyway, and her fans will continue to eat it up.
  5. “Video Games” is a haunting, trenchant commentary on the way we live now. It’s a dead-eyed (in several senses…) broadside that sneaks in through the back door of the bar, draping itself over the pool table and hogging the spotlight from the hanging fixture. When she gets to the verse about being drunk and in his arms, we’re already nodding along and smiling, because we’ve felt that before. Her voice, so grave and somber, flits and bats drunkenly, like a moth in a mason jar, at notions of what she wants, what happiness is. She’s not sure herself, but at least she feels something, in contrast to all those of her generation strung out on Adderall and endless meds for depression, anxiety, and everything else. She senses that feeling means she’s heading in the right direction. It rings true for a whole lot of people who are young, or who can remember being young and feeling that way (not just girls, by the way — her lyrics, delivery, and production all manage to lift Del Rey out of the banal and arc her toward the universal, like a bottle rocket across the sky.) If the song, and Del Rey’s music in general, doesn’t express the current politically dictated orthodoxy, then maybe it’s the propaganda that’s out of touch with reality, not the other way around. We do young people a grave disservice when we furiously lecture them, keep them away from things we fear are bad for them but actually might be fine, and try to clip their wings. When they get the chance they fly faster and harder than we can anticipate, and not always in the best directions. Disillusionment with propaganda means that much good can get flushed away, along with truths that  might be useful or even necessary — and the young rarely take the time to delve through their elders’ wisdom and seek for what is best, plus critical thinking isn’t always there yet. Let the kids hear what makes sense. Give guidance, but don’t oppress. It’s a balancing act, but very needed.

So yeah, that’s what I would have said to him (well, maybe 1 and 2 for sure, and maybe 3 if the conversation was patient and unfolded enough to allow for it) — but, since you smirked, you’re never going to find that out, are you? Good luck with that smirk, because it will continue to narrow your worldview and impoverish your life in ways you can’t anticipate, for years to come. Cheers!

Afghan Whigs on KEXP: My reflections

The Afghan Whigs released their 6th studio album recently (first in 16 years! cue little girl squealing sounds), and as part of that they’re doing the media hoopla thing. I ran across this performance/interview with Seattle’s KEXP the other day — KEXP has lots of artists on, and they’re usually very good, you should check ’em out. Here’s the Whigs’ time on the show:

My observations:

1) Even though he’s 50, and, let’s be honest, put on a few pounds recently (ahh, the return of Fat Greg Dulli perhaps in the offing?), even though he’s sweating bacon grease indoors in an air-conditioned studio, even though all that time has passed since the Whigs’ first time around — he’s still selling it, still shucking and jiving, still completely into the music, trying to make you feel something, trying to reach across and connect with you by sheer force of will, if not always musicality. That’s showmanship. That’s dedication, craft, and class. Gotta respect that.

2) Dulli seems irritable, which is odd. He’s nearly borderline rude. It’s even more puzzling because Cheryl Waters, the host, comes off as a total fangirl. (She bought a vinyl copy of Big Top Halloween. How many people can say that?) Perhaps the two facts, Dulli’s irritation and her obvious love and appreciation for the band, are not unconnected. Or maybe someone starched his shorts too much, or he got an unwelcome text before going into the studio, or the airline lost his luggage, too much caffeine, what have you — hard to say. At the most, it’s just speculation, but he does come off as tetchy.

3) The songs are stripped down as compared to the album versions. This robs them a little of their full musicality, but it ups the punch. “Matamoros” is plain scary, with the loopy non sequiturs in the lyrics delivered in a flat affect that signals “hustler on the move”. “It Kills” shows its bones as a true soul ballad –nothing “blue-eyed” about the soul on display here (an insulting and racialist modifier if ever I saw one.) The propulsive thump of the album version becomes a nearly marching-band chop, which actually makes it seem even more old-school. The song sorely misses Van Hunt’s wild, edge-of-control (emotional, auditory, mental) falsetto, but that extra space also highlights the chord changes through the middle of the song that just grip you and won’t let go. Who else makes soul music like this anymore? No really, who? “Royal Cream” stretches and builds tension, and “The Lottery” clatters appealingly and bangs a groove more than the album original’s spacey/U2 feel, but again, it’s just different, not worse by any stretch. Bottom line, this is a veteran band that can groove and move at will, as one. They don’t make bands like this anymore. Many bands sound polished to a T on record but can’t finish live. The Whigs flourish in a live setting, and always have.

4) Speaking of “It Kills”, perhaps the most riveting moment I’ve ever witnessed in a studio interview-play-a-few-songs-kinda performance comes during that song — specifically, at the end. Dulli plays the final few tender notes of the piano part, then he holds it — and pauses. He stares off into the distance, and you can tell he’s somewhere else, with someone else, thinking of other times, other places; other voices, other people, perhaps one particular person. For those few moments, he’s not in the room. Nowhere close. After a few eternal moments of reverie, Dulli looks back toward someone (the host?) and nods once, with a slight smile on his lips — and it’s still quiet. She supplies a clarification for the listeners at home: “A moment of silence for the Afghan Whigs” — and then the chatter resumes. But for those few moments, the most riveting statement that they could make, the most beautiful music of all, was simply to play…nothing.

5) Dig those smoky aviator shades of Dulli’s — classy.

6) Rick Nelson, the strings player, looks like a librarian or an engineer on the weekend. Obviously he didn’t get the “all black dress code for performances” memo from Dulli. (He often doesn’t, it seems.) But who cares, because his all-around musical excellence is not to be underestimated. He’s one of the aces Dulli has taped under the table…and he should continue to be on every project Dulli works on from now til, well, always.

7) Cully Simonson, the drummer, looks like a psychopathic logger in that plaid shirt. He often has a frightening detached insouciance, as if he could shake your hand or push you out a window with equal ease. Maybe it’s the combination of the beard, the hair, and the sunglasses. He doesn’t look like that without the beard or shades. Dude can smack a tub though.

8) Another favorite moment: when Greg silently yells at a band member to turn it down, whoever it might be, after he’s already made the motion for it once before, during “Royal Cream”. It’s a tiny glimpse in what it must be like to tour with Dulli and play in his sandbox. He’s a notoriously big personality, and all these guys have played with Dulli a long time. In order to run with Dulli one must skip to his lou … but it sure is hard to argue with the finished product.

 

Now that’s a party I want to attend.

Here’s a clip from back in the day, Mr. Greg Dulli on Craig Kilborn’s show (remember him? – Nah, me neither), taking an oldie and turning it inside out. I love the way Dulli takes a cover and OWNS it. His criteria, as he’s said in interviews, is that he has to wish he’d written the song, and then make it sound like he did. He succeeds on both counts here, even with a chestnut like this one. His performance makes me envious that I am not, in fact, having a party with him, or even that I’m not cool enough to even think of being invited to said party. Still and all, for the rest of us, the great unwashed…there’s YouTube.

I had a dream once (which also featured a cameo by Amy Winehouse, relatively not-strung-out for those of you scoring at home) in which Mr. Dulli appeared, looking very much like he does in this video — almost exactly, in fact. Perhaps that’s where my subconscious sourced it. Or maybe my id wants to be invited to Dulli’s party. Or something. At any rate, pop the top on a cold one or pour yourself a cocktail, and enjoy this song.

 

I go to pieces.

Patsy Cline is primo late-nite music — whether or not you have a bottle at your elbow. The way she sings every note convinces you that she’s lived everything she sings about personally — it never really enters our minds that perhaps she’s just putting on a persona for a song. Nuh uh. She’s been there, done that, lived through it all — tearstains on the pillow, cheating hearts, long midnight walks, and all.

Whenever I listen to Patsy Cline, I picture a woman who’s on the verge of cracking, someone who’s barely holding it together as a functioning human being and for whom the wrong word will bring all her pain and hurt and confusion flooding into the world very publicly, but yet someone who paints on her lipstick, fixes her mascara, takes a deep breath, and keeps it together if not for the rest of the day, at least for an hour. Her makeup, the face she presents to the world, is just a very thin veneer that’s covering over the fault lines that are threatening to split apart her personality — all the tragedies, heartache, and rejection she’s endured, and will still endure. But she lifts her chin and does the hardest thing of all — she goes out and faces the world. She tries again tomorrow. I don’t know if that’s actually present in her music (or the fact that I hear it there says more about me than about her), but I admire that.

It’s quite an accomplishment to sound as if you’re about ten minutes from jumping off a bridge, on the one hand — so utterly and thoroughly despairing — and yet still be elegant and poised, never mawkish, insincere, or histrionic. Part of it is Cline’s voice. Good gracious, that voice. So rich and resonant, I get chills up my spine every single time she crescendoes in “I Go to Pieces”…Every. Single. Time.

I know the songs were recorded at different times, but her “12 Greatest Hits” is practically a concept album when you listen to it — watching her life fall apart by stages, as the wheels come off in slow motion. Only “Back in Baby’s Arms” is entirely upbeat and positive, and we almost wince, feeling sorry for how happy she is, knowing it won’t last (the poor fool). And sure enough, it goes downhill from there.

Perhaps it bottoms out on “Why Can’t He Be You”. She has a man who is good to her, who loves her even; she has a man who she is deeply in love with. Problem is, it’s not the same guy. The song is one great big “if only” — if only the man who loves me that I’m with would be you, without your boorish habits, cold arrogance, and totally self-centered worldview. If only the one I loved so consumingly I almost feel sick was actually good enough to love me back. Yeah, that’s all it would take to make her happy. You feel her sense of isolation inside her own head and heart, the hopeless frozen feeling that if the slightest thing changes or the slightest word about her true feelings will be whispered, it would cause the world to shatter into a million pieces. She sounds like a woman about to have a violent mental break with reality, with no way out — except the impossible. “Why can’t he be you?” Does that not sound like a recipe custom-made for a lifetime of the most exquisite, soul-rending unhappiness? And all without having her class or her poise drained out of her. “She’s Got You” is the same sort of song, only switched around.

It’s a pity that Patsy Cline died so young. Just imagine the music she could have gone on to make. Even just her album “12 Greatest Hits” (the only one of hers I happen to have) is enough to swim in, dissect, ponder for years. It transcends mere pop music to speak something universal that touches all of us at some point, if we are fortunate — or unfortunate — enough. Enjoy the clip and make sure to toss back a shot of something strong, or doff your cowboy hat, to Patsy Cline – a true original.

Lou Reed died today.

Lou Reed died today. This wasn’t supposed to happen. He was among the select pantheon of rock-&-roll who were meant to be around forever. Of course, we all eventually go — Ian Curtis, Johnny Cash, Joe Strummer, Mark Sandman, John Lennon, all of us — but you slip into a habit of mind of thinking they’ll live forever. Mainly because their music and the effect it has on you seems so eternal, so lasting. When another living legend is no longer living, out of the blue, the light seems to dim a little for the rest of us. The world seems suddenly smaller and…lesser, somehow, for not having luminaries like Lou Reed in it, when not so long ago they were still with us. So here’s to the music, while it lasts…before the silence returns.