There’s no getting around it: Super Furry Animals’ “Fire In My Heart” is a wonderfully, shamelessly soppy song. For a band that seems to live to subvert expectation, play around with sounds and detourn pop history, it’s amazingly straightforward, with little wordplay or sarcasm in the lyrics (Okay, maybe “the watchdogs of the profane” isn’t a phrase you’d expect to hear in every love song, but give them some slack), and the arrangement of the song – constantly building, adding new sounds and layers with every new verse – seems similarly traditional. There isn’t any heavy hidden meaning to “Fire In My Heart,” it’s the band being sincere – or, as sincere as they can be (I still think the “Ba Ba Ba” backing vocals is over-egging the pudding for comic effect, so to speak, as is the “Ooh-oooh-oooh” ending, but both are easily forgiven) – and enjoyably saccharine sweet. More bands should just try and write love songs this simple, I think.
For a song that is, ultimately, a rip-off/cash-in of something that I’m not sure whether its creators completely understood (Psychedelia, with “porpoise” a stand-in for the Beatles’ Walrus), the Monkees’ “Porpoise Song” is surprisingly transcendent of its origins. Maybe it’s the wonderful arrangement (The organ holding everything down, the strings – very heavily influenced by “I Am The Walrus” – looming in the background and the guitar clanging on the left channel… And then that wonderful, almost orchestral swell at 2:56, with the bells chiming and tapes unwinding and and and… Oh, how I love the way this song is laid out, even if it is just “I Am The Walrus”‘ ending done slightly differently), maybe it’s the vocals (or, more importantly, the backing vocals – I don’t know why, but there’s something about the slight dischordance there that really works for me), or maybe it’s the lyrics that, when freed of the “porpoise” conceit, have an epic melancholy that I prefer to John Lennon’s freeform weirdness in the inspiratory song, but I find myself preferring this to “I Am The Walrus” for some inexplicable reason. Whereas the Beatles were angry and snide in their psychedelic masterpiece, the Monkees seem sad, confused and resigned (“Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye…”) in theirs, and that’s the kind of thing that’ll always win my attention, I shamefully admit.
There’s definitely an argument to be made for “Black Book” being the sound of a band who’ve collectively listened to Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space having a jam session and forgetting to edit it afterwards, but fuck it, I love this song, all almost-nine-minutes of it, even the almost unlistenable middle section where the jam and Damon Albarn’s “Give you my soul, give you my soul” threaten to overwhelm everything around it like a muso black hole. Maybe it’s the way that the organ grounds all of the guitar wankery, perhaps it’s because the memory of Damon’s vocal performance at the start of the song is so strong that his (surprisingly) deep vocals are enough to sustain you until you get to the coda, or it could be the coda itself, Damon and the gospel choir (The London Community Gospel Choir, I think? I may be misremembering) echoing the “give you my soul” chant but transforming it into something far more peaceful, more beautiful – Literally the calm after the storm. After all, think of how the jam section ends, with the guitar looping, fading out, and the organ reasserting control while an acoustic guitar strums quietly in the background.
The song builds, and subsides, which could be part of its charm. It’s a weather system in itself, the rains coming and then leaving, and everything refreshed afterwards. “Black Book” is a wonderfully cathartic song, if you’re willing to let it be so.
There’s something charmingly whimsical about “Far Out,” as it appears on Parklife, Blur’s 1994 album that changed everything for the band and British music at the time. Unlike the singles from the album – “Girls and Boys,” say, or “End of A Century” – it’s much less self-assured, starting with the echoey fingerpicked acoustic guitar, before the organ comes in and settles into a fairground ride waltz and the song begins properly. It’s very tentative, very awkward in a winning way, weirdly in tune with the nerdiness of the lyrics, which basically consists of tracing the stars in the sky above us, before reaching the sun and… well, kind of burning out, in its own way.
What’s interesting, though, is hearing the original version of the song (Finally released, in only slightly altered form, as a DVD-extra track on a 1999 single, “No Distance Left To Run”) and discovering that the song was originally something faster, noisier and much longer. As much as I love the version on Parklife, I prefer the “original,” which is much more excitable, eager and – and this may be my own personal prejudices coming out here – confident in its nerdiness. It’s not tentative at all; it owns its nerdiness, as the saying goes, and it’s all the more fun for that.
As someone who writes online for a living, the news that Google is now larger (financially) than the entire US newspaper industry (advertising and sales) is depressing in a way that’s hard to explain. I love the internet and I love what I do, don’t get me wrong, but I have always secretly wanted to have things in print. It’s an old-fashioned thing, perhaps, or a subconscious rejection of the transience of online writing, but I saw Abraham Reisman say this in a Warren Ellis blog post and it rang true:
Writing a cover feature for a magazine remains one of the — if not the — brass rings for a freelancer or young staff writer. Like, for real.
The blue-chip publications are, of course, ideal — your New Yorkers and New York Times Magazines and Wireds. And I don’t suppose anyone has little fantasies about writing for the official Amtrak magazine (although, y’know what, I really shouldn’t say such things in this economy). But even a spot in a smaller-market title is an insane boon to one’s career/prestige/wallet, when one is starting out.
I dream of the day that I can write a cover story — or even just an internal feature. I want to go glossy. I’d literally do it for zero money, because it brings with it a hope that dollar-signs will be in my corneas in the not-so-distant future.
There’s something about writing for print that feels more… successful? established? both? that writing for the internet, and I say that as someone who’s written for Time Magazine and Gawker Media online, two big, somewhat prestigious media empires. In time, that sense of self-success will shift for writers, I’m sure, but for now… print is still where it’s at, despite the size of Google and the weight of reality. And because of that, I think the “death of print” is still a little bit off… or, at least, I hope it is.
I had a thought, the other day, that all of those “2012! It’s when the world is going to end!” prophecies and panics were right, in a way. Or, at least, that they were as right as they were wrong, and it’s just that everyone was being far too literal in approaching them. I’ve noticed that I am sadly not alone in finding that 2012 so far as been strangely, worryingly overwhelming in terms of life changes and work things and just big stuff – Friends have been having worse times of it than me, and fighting their own battles against all manner of things that I’ve only ever vaguely had to deal with, luckily – and it’s gone from dazed jokes that “This year is trying to kill us” to actually wondering if this year is trying to kill us.
It’s not, of course, but I wonder if 2012 is going to end up being some kind of weird year of change for people, where things happen (Things so important that they require italics, obviously). One of my favorite comments about all the 2012 insanity was someone pointing out that none of the prophecies were actually saying that it was the year where the world ended, but that they were all about massive shifts and dramatic changes (Terrence McKenna’s Timewave Zero, for example, has this year as the equivalent of a massive heart attack for the planet, but not a fatal one, if I remember correctly). I always preferred that idea, that “it’s not death, it’s changing” take on events, but I didn’t really take any of it even vaguely seriously until the other day, thinking that all of this upheaval and drama and quiet sad horror is the start of that change, and that it’s something that we’re all doing without realizing it. It’s the end of the world as we know it, perhaps, but only our own worlds, and only those worlds as we know them.
All of which is a quasi-apology for not writing here lately. I’ve been going through my own internal dramas (Very quietly, very withdrawn, you’ll be happy to know, and none of it serious beyond to my bank balance), and haven’t felt particularly like blogging here. I’m getting over that, though, and will soon be back to trying to catch up to 366 Songs (I am so amazingly behind) and, more importantly, other writing that can fill voids left by gigs that I no longer have or never had in the first place. The name of this site was always meant to push me forward, after all.
I have no history with Cat Stevens; somehow, he’d passed me by entirely in all of my musical journeys with the exception of a cover of his “Father and Son” that managed to upset me enough with one particular lyric (“Find a girl, settle down/Pretty soon now, you’ll be married”) that I stayed away from any temptation that might’ve led me to explore further. And then, years later, I heard this:
In terms of performance, it’s not Elliott Smith’s finest hour in the slightest; he sounds very out of it, all the rumors about his condition prior to his death swirling around in his sullen, slurred vocals. But the melody, the sparseness of it and the darkness of the lyrics, appealed to me enough that I went searching for the original, and… It’s actually right up my alley.
Clearly, I find sadness far too attractive when it comes to these kinds of songs, because this is a dark, defeated song filled with enough inference and vagueness as to allow the listener to define the “trouble” any way they want; one of the problems I have with the Elliott Smith version is, I think, that the way he sounds, his “trouble” overpowers other readings. But the original has a… lightness, perhaps, isn’t the right word, but there’s space to breathe and insert yourself that I find inviting. It’s not misery, but melancholy, and that’s an important difference for me. My sad songs must have a glimpse of hope, or else they’re too claustrophobic and upsetting.
There’s a gentleness and ease to “As We Go Along” that always appeals to me; the opening, mixing acoustic and electric guitars, sounds like a summer morning for reasons that I can’t really explain, and even when Mickey Dolenz’ vocal begins and the bass starts appearing in the bottom, everything remains lovely placid; it’s a song that feels sleepy not in a narcotic hazey kind of way, but a slowly awakening at your own speed way – Even when the song builds with the “Open your eyes/Get up off your chair” lines, it does so slowly and in such a way that you feel pulled along with it, gently and encouragingly (I thank the flute for that). This is a loving song, entirely and completely, a song that wants the best for you in a way that only really makes sense in the era before the mellow singer-songwriter era of the 1970s, before music fragmented to the point where that genre seemed to steal this kind of song away from the pop bands entirely.
Instead of manufactured teen pop feeling, here’s some of the real thing: One of the greatest pop songs ever made, and something that feels so wonderfully pure in its simultaneous evocation and undercutting of the pop song cliche and format. To today’s ears, there’s probably nothing different or overly exciting about “Teenage Kicks,” but I still find the guitar solo after the second go-around thrilling (I also love that the song is actually so short, they do it twice and the whole thing is still under three minutes!), Fergal Sharkey’s weird American accent impressed over his genuine Irish one, or the lyrics that are simultaneously distillations of pop romance (“Another girl in the neighborhood/Wish she was mine, she looks so good”) and weirdly creepy (Is this song about older guys perving on teenage girls? How old were the Undertones when this was recorded, anyway?). There’s almost nothing to dislike about this song, and even if there was, it’s over so quickly that it’d be done by the time you’d realized it, anyway.