I’ve always wondered just how much of “Melanie Davis” comes from the cynical consensus that Britpop was all a bunch of Beatles retread and little else, considering the obvious shout-out to “With A Little Help From My Friends” in the chorus. I like the lift, I have to agree, especially because of the change in attitude it seems to signify between the two ages; when asked “Do you need anybody?” Ringo replies that he needs somebody to love, but Gaz is asked “Do you need someone?” and whines/sneers “I need anyone/I need everyone,” which feels more… I don’t know, needy? Desperate? Honest? At least one of the three, and that’s something that’s always appealed.
(Add that in with the organ, the harmonies and the “Ahh-ahh-ahhh” backing vocals, and this song is pretty much a winner for me as soon as we hit the chorus for the first time.)
So, I’m sick – Well, getting better now, but the weekend (and especially Sunday) was lost to me essentially feeling sorry for myself and coughing miserably and more than a little pathetically. What was particularly weird, though, was that Saturday into Sunday, I couldn’t sleep because I felt so lousy, but I also couldn’t stop myself getting entirely lost in nostalgia for the entire night, remembering people and places that I hadn’t thought about in years, if not decades; people I’d known in high school, stores that I used to go to in Glasgow and Aberdeen, ex-girlfriends and college friends and everything like that. It was one of those times where you’re not asleep, but you’re also not awake enough to be in full control of where your brain takes you, so you end up a passenger in your own thoughts. It was oddly pleasant, to be honest; none of the memories were especially bad, but neither were they of the “I was so young and alive and had so much hair back then…!” variety, so it was just this nice trip down memory lane, really. If only all insomniac nights were like that.
I love the sleepy, narcotic haze of “Sweet Song,” one of those things that seems to suggest that the older Damon Albarn gets, the better he gets at creating a particularly beautiful kind of melancholy in his music, filled with vague and wonderfully human lyrics (Like “To Binge,” I guess, there’s a strange power in such a broad statement as “I never meant to hurt you/No no no/It takes time to see what you’ve done” that is, I suspect, as much about what the listener brings to the lyrics as what they actually say; pop songs as rorschach test!). The musical accompaniment, whether it’s the click track, the false start of the piano leading into the gentle riff that floats through the song, or the way the song seems to evaporate at the end, feels just right, as well; there’s something temporary and weightless about the sound of this song, like a memory or dream. Like I said, it’s a sleepy song. There’s something really appealing to me about that.
Ignoring the fact that this is one of the sweetest songs ever recorded – and made all the moreso, in my opinion, by the fact that it’s not overly saccharine or simplistic; “It’s always been/ Wait and see/A happy day/And then you pay/And feel like shit/The morning after” is a lovely little section, embracing the ambivalence of relationships in the same way as “I didn’t know/I’d be around/The morning after” – with a simple and lovely little tune, what truly stole my heart while hearing “Say Yes” by Elliott Smith for the first time was the bridge that starts at 1:32, with the doubletracked vocal splitting in two while another dub comes in (To my ears, at least, there are three vocals by this point, but I may be wrong) and the vocal melody just… I want to say unfolds, but that’s wrong and there’s probably a million different, more correct, ways to put it. Nonetheless, hearing the voices rise and fall with the ridiculously emo but still affecting lines “I’m damaged/Bad at best/She’ll decide what she wants” pretending to offer nonchalantness in the face of relationship uncertainty and optimism is the kind of thing that really gets to me, being the wuss I am (“I’ll probably be the last to know/No-one says until it shows/See how it is/They want you or they don’t,” followed by the simple, honest “Say yes.” Oh, man, I’m a mushy mess already).
Also worth pointing out: This song contains the one piece of lyrical advice I try to remember at all bad times. “Situations get fucked up/But turned around, sooner or later.” I’m always counting on that latter half.
As soon as you find out that “One,” apparently, came from Harry Nilsson getting a busy signal on a phone one day, that can dominate the way that you hear the song, with the repeated keyboard note dominating everything else around it, including the harpsichord and strings (and flute, I think? From 1:32, that is) that carry the weight of the song outside of Nilsson’s voice. Deetdeet deetdeet, deetdeet deetdeet, and so on.
By the time that Three Dog Night have their collective hands on the song, it’s already lost the fragility of the original version; the vocals have gone from Nilsson’s softness to the overblown rock wail of Danny Hutton, and the carefully built structure of the original is replaced by something that aims to rock you but feels scattered and as if the band has forgotten how the song actually goes, and are trying to hide it with harmony vocals (“Num-Burr!” indeed); this arrangement feels curiously at odds with the lyrical content of the song, but this was also the version that was the bigger hit, so I guess that the late ’60s kids were more willing to accept aggression from a moustachioed rockhero than melancholy from a soon-to-be carwreck.
I’m tempted to say that Aimee Mann’s version of the song – from the soundtrack of Magnola – is the one that I prefer, in a lot of ways; there’s the sadness of the Nilsson original, but also a stronger dynamic than that one, with a structure that makes more sense than the Three Dog Night version – adding in the organ and bass, as well as Jon Brion’s backing vocals (The section at 2:10 with, apparently new lyrics and melody, is just lovely), brings something to the song that feels more in tune with what the song is actually about, instead of the overblown theatrics of the Three Dog Night version.
Ultimately, I prefer the Nilsson vocals from the original, but I find myself wishing that he’d had the thought to add what Mann/Brion did in their version for some weird Voltron final version. But then, what song doesn’t have some missed opportunities down the line?
There’s a problem with comedy songs that they outstay their welcome almost impossibly early, sometimes before the end of the first listen. The problem, really, is that all too many comedy songs forget to be songs, and instead focus on the comedy, and it’s only the truly great jokes that manage to stand up to repeated revisits in the same way that we tend to want to revisit songs over and over again. All the more credit, then, to Blossom Dearie’s “I’m Hip,” which is undoubtedly a comedy song, but one that’s entirely enjoyable as a song even if you don’t get the joke.
A lot of that is down to Dearie’s vocals, which are as light as ever; she always had a tendency to sound a little like a comedy character at the best of times with her very particular voice, but with a song like this one, that feels even more the case (Lines like “Like you notice I don’t wear a beard” gain a second meaning with her girly vocal). Here, she helps the joke go down with the fact that she sounds like she’s blissfully happy, in on the joke but with no malice behind it, which feels important for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on; maybe a more restrained, hipster detachment would be funnier on first listen, but would over-egg the comedy pudding…? Nevertheless, Dearie manages to somehow defuse whatever meanness may be inherent in the song, which goes a long way towards giving the song/joke a longer life, as well as just making it a joy to listen to; her sing-song take would be fun even if you couldn’t understand what she was actually saying.
(It also helps, I suspect, that (a) the jokes are funny, and (b) the jokes are also pretty silly; “Bobby Darin knows my friend” as a boast? One of the writers on this song was Bob Dorough, who wrote all the songs for Schoolhouse Rock, and there’s a shared goodwill between those songs and this one, a lack of teeth or desire to cause genuine upset.)
Also light, and subtly helpful in making this a repeatable pleasure; the musicians in the background, with Dearie on piano (so light, playing it as punctuation almost, letting her voice carry the majority of the melody when she’s singing) and some lovely brushwork on the drums keeping time and offering a backbone of style but, thankfully, little else right up until the big cymbal finale. In many ways, this is popcorn music, fluffy and pleasant and entirely throwaway, but done with such style that it ended up sticking around after all.
I remember, very clearly, watching the opening scenes of the movie version of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World at San Diego Comic-Con in 2010, and being very nervous; was Michael Cera right for Scott? Didn’t everyone feel a little low energy and quiet? Didn’t this seem a little too… mannered for the all-out awesomeness that the comic seemed to offer up without fear? And then Sex Bob-Omb did their first number and everything was just fine.
There is no song in the world that makes me wish I had been in a band as a teenager, just making music and throwing ridiculous guitar shapes while doing so, kicking myself into the air Pete Townsend-style, than “We Are Sex Bob-Omb”; it’s loud and messy and exactly the kind of brash and fearless and unmissable that I wanted the movie to be, and that I wish I could’ve made when I was half my age, if that makes sense. There’s something about this song, with its stuttering bass and relentless drums that feels like a dare, or a promise: “This is what we’re doing, come with us or don’t.” It’s beautifully messy, scrappy stuff – The “Yeah Yeah”s that aren’t harmonies, almost but not quite, the scream at 1:06 that announces the closest thing the song has to a bridge as the cymbals stop and we get the vocalist (Mark Webber, I think, but it might also be Michael Cera or even Beck, who wrote/performed the basic track) essentially speaking in tongues breathlessly – that just feels like the result of energy that isn’t harnessed or focused, just excited by its own potential, and a love for music. Because of that, it feels like some lost garage anthem, which was likely the goal.
This song just sounds like happiness to me; an eager, excitable, happiness that’s entirely infectious and inexplicable. The promise of music, reduced to its basic appeal, perhaps. How can you really say better than that?
Lilys’ 1996 album Can’t Make Your Life Better is one of those things that you’ll either love or just not get at all; it’s a bizarre evocation of an idea in American music rather than an era or genre, per se, all about creating psychedelic garage rock that pulls as much from shoegazing and space rock as it does bands that would’ve appeared on a Nuggets compilation. The songs on it feel very much like something you’d have heard about and been passed by a friend who thinks that “maybe you’ll y’know dig it or something,” and even though the album led to a hit in the U.K. thanks to a well-timed Levi’s ad, there’s nothing particularly fashionable or mainstream about them, as catchy and perfect as they are.
Take “Returns Every Morning,” which pushes droning guitars into Roger McGuinn guitar picking (That lead guitar between 0:58 and 1:02!), mixing high-pitched vocals and harmonies with cynical, hopeful lyrics (“And when I get back/We’ll start an acid rock band/But anyone can do the band thing, now, man”) and a structure that both peaks and builds to something that remains out of reach, thanks to a fadeout ending (The “song” ends at 2:17, but then it continues for more than a minute of riff that hints at more, mixing dronerock and pop in a different way). There’s so much here that shouldn’t work, but somehow does; it’s less a song than an experience, in a lot of ways, an injoke for people who get all the references and draw them out to whatever conclusions they want in their head.
Weirdly, following “A Nanny in Manhattan” becoming a hit in the U.K. in… 1998, maybe? I want to say that’s when it was, but maybe it was 1997, Can’t Make Your Life Better was re-released with all the tracks remixed and, in some cases, reconstructed with different arrangements that changed the songs more than a little. “Returns Every Morning” wasn’t one that was massively changed, but the addition of orchestral parts (Strings! A harp!) subtly changes the feel of what’s going on, and the fadeout riffing at the end turns out to be very different, with the fadeout gone, replaced by quiet strings rising in the background as the lead guitar finishes repeating the riff and starts going off in a crazier direction, everything building to… a sudden stop, and silence. There’s something more disturbing about this end, for me, the feeling being that we were heading towards something but suddenly prevented from reaching it, bringing the melancholy of lost opportunities and things-that-might-have-been. The song was never comforting – it was too scattered and displaced for that – but this second version makes it feel sad, with the different ending. Or maybe that’s just me.
I always wondered what the story was behind Nina Simone’s epic “Funkier Than A Mosquito’s Tweeter,” every time I hear it; it’s a vicious song, clearly one born of anger with the lyrics just filled with invective and some of the best insults ever put to music (I’m particularly partial to “Blowing minds is a thing of the past/You blew your chance, that’s why you never last/You want to be a graduated mother/But in reality, you’re just another brother,” but the very next couplet – “You think you’re slick, but you could stand a lot of greasin’/The things you do ain’t never really pleasin'” – comes very close), which makes me curious who, exactly, the song was written about, and what was the igniting event. We’ve gotten used to diss songs in recent years/decades, I think, with rap in particular making it into enough of a common thing that it feels like a legitimate genre, but this song still feels light years ahead of everything else in this particular school, a song to play people who think that “You’re So Vain” is both mysterious and cutting.
Turns out the song wasn’t written by Simone; it’s actually the work of Alline Bullock, who turns out to be the sister of Tina Turner, the woman behind some classic Ike and Tina stuff, including “Bold Soul Sister” (Maybe my favorite Tina Turner song). The original (?) Ike and Tina version of the song is enjoyable enough, but lacks the viciousness of Simone’s; it seems more generically R’n’B in its arrangement, lacking the unnerving cruelty and detachment that drips from Simone’s voice in her version and the space present in the later arrangement.
Simone’s take on the song is, in fact, funky – Although it took me a couple of listens to really listen to the lyrics and realize that the funk of the title is the nasty funk, the kind that you don’t want to have; the idea of something being “funkier than a mosquito’s tweeter” is actually weirdly and wonderfully dirty, when you think about it – but it’s a different type of funk from Ike and Tina (Nikki Costa, who did another version that’s clearly based on Simone’s, tries for the coolness of Simone but gets it horribly wrong, sounding like a soulless remake and missing the point entirely, especially when the electric guitar comes in and flattens everything around it); it’s restrained for the most part, stripped down to the essentials (bongos, bass, vibes) so that the focus is very clearly on Simone’s voice – and when the drums come in at 2:25, it has such an impact that you sit up and take notice. The original version of this song is fun, rowdy and rude, but when Simone takes it on, it becomes a scalpel of pure spite, reminding the world that she’s something to be reckoned with.
I always feel guilty about the fact that I first heard Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” in a car commercial; there’s something about Drake in general, and “Pink Moon” in particular that that feels like heresy, as if just by that process of discovery, I’ve somehow cheapened the music and Drake’s tortured experience in life. This is what’ll happen to future mes, when Elliott Smith is used to advertise sneakers and they hear “Needle In The Hay” for the first time. There’s a lot to connect Drake and Smith, even beyond the tortured artist stereotype; a sensitivity and serenity to their music, a preference for hushed vocals and finger-picked acoustic guitars… Smith is, in many ways, the more openly self-loathing descendant of Drake’s, but there’s a warmth to Drake that Smith sometimes misses.
(A lot of that warmth, I think, comes from Drake’s voice, which is weirdly charming in its breathiness here, and the almost comforting nature of the song, which is simple and open and has the type of chord structure that makes it feel more relaxing than others, for some reason.)
Having said all of that, my favorite version of “Pink Moon” isn’t the original; it’s Beck’s cover from a few years back, which adds a melancholy – again, I’m tempted to say that’s a vocal thing as well – to the original, a sadness and resignation that gives the entire song a strangely more affecting mood.
Clearly, I just like the sad songs.