366 Songs 112: Kickin’

Here’s an odd one: This was a favorite song of mine way back in the mid-90s, albeit one that I possibly only heard… what, maybe three times at most? I didn’t own it, because it wasn’t a single and I didn’t want to buy the entire album for one song; I knew it because it was a Tricky collaboration and happening at the time when I was very, very into all of the Tricky stuff. There’s something somewhat forced about it, listening to it now, something trying too hard to be quirky and off-center (The lyrics, in particular, are countless moments of “What…?” after another) with the random noises and lazy, loutish attempts at off-kilter harmonies as the song finishes, but I’ll admit it: I’m still sucked in by the simplicity of the chorus. “I can’t help it, I think you’re really kickin'” is the kind of lyric that can only be created by someone with English as a second language (Whale were Swedish, as far as I remember), but it has the goofy grin and appeal of one newly smitten, and for that alone, I’ll always have a soft spot for it. I can’t help it.

366 Songs 111: Baby Blue

I can remember seeing Tricky at some festival – T-in-the-Park, probably – back in the ’90s, just after the first album had come out and being just completely transfixed by Martina Topley-Bird, her stage presence and voice and the fact that there seemed something unworldly about her. She was, in many ways, the heart of Tricky 1.0, and as that act/performer/group/whatever fell apart (Seriously, that third album? Not so good), she was what I found myself missing the most. Cut to years later, and this song from her second solo album: There’s a lightness on it that betrays the touch of producer Danger Mouse, but the retro girlband sound works here – There’s something suitably dreamy about the way it shimmies around Topley-Bird’s vocal, all handclaps and tinkling synthetic ivories, disguising the sadness at the heart of the lyrics (“Baby blue/I don’t know what you do when you call to me,” she sings, apparently about a boy who’s oblivious to what’s really going on in her heart and her mind).

Topley-Bird’s solo stuff is disappointing in its unevenness, but when it’s like this, I find myself wanting more.

366 Songs 110: Stayin’ Alive

I was reading an obituary for Robin Gibb yesterday that talked about his sense of humor, and that came as little surprise; I’ve long considered “Staying Alive” home to one of the funniest – and, let’s be honest, one of the downright greatest – opening lines in popular music: “Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk, I’m a woman’s man, no time to talk.”

There’s so much to unpack there, whether it’s the weird (unintentional?) double entendre of being “a woman’s man” (Sure, a man who likes women, obviously, but if a “man’s man” denotes masculinity and machoness in society, what does a woman’s man denote – especially when you’re singing in such a falsetto?), the idea that you can tell that from the way he walks (Bowlegged from so much sex? Is it a particular wiggle in his butt? Is he just walking fast to go please more women? WHAT?), or the spectacular “No time to talk.” Why not? Maybe he is walking fast and that’s how you can tell that he’s a woman’s man. Maybe being a woman’s man is all about not having any time to hang around. It’s just such a wonderful opening that makes you want to know more, find out what he’s going to say next. Put it up against the spectacular guitar riff and hi-hat-crazy beat and it literally becomes an irresistible piece of pop. Stardom was guaranteed – and well deserved – for the Bee Gees as soon as they’d come up with this, let’s face it.

366 Songs 109: I Feel Love

The death of Donna Summer last week was something that was sad in the abstract; a “Oh, I never paid so much attention to her, but she’s dead and that’s a shame for her friends and family” kind of thing, but nothing beyond that, really. And then, the other day, I was in a store and “I Feel Love” was playing and… It sounded like music from now. It sounded contemporary, or – no, it sounded like something a few months from now, if that makes sense. Maybe it’s the snake-eating-its-own-tail nature of pop’s retro sound, but the thirty-plus year disco hit genuinely sounds more modern than half of the pop music that’s been created in the last couple of years.

It’s so good, it’s so good, it’s so good, indeed.

Ebony and Ivory, Live Together In Perfect Har-Mon-Eeee

I’ve been thinking about Jaime Hernandez’ art a lot, lately. Like all good-thinking people, I’m a massive fan of his work, especially the way his cartoon simplicity is mixed with the naturalness of his character acting, but lately I’ve been hooked on the design of his panels, and the smart way he balances solid blacks and whites on the page. Hernandez is a master.

“Remember The First Person Through The Wall Always Gets Hurt”

You’ll meet a lot of people who, to put it simply, don’t know what they’re talking about. In 1970 a CBS executive famously said that there were four things that we would never, ever see on television: a divorced person, a Jewish person, a person living in New York City and a man with a moustache. By 1980, every show on television was about a divorced Jew who lives in New York City and goes on a blind date with Tom Selleck.

Develop your own compass, and trust it. Take risks, dare to fail, remember the first person through the wall always gets hurt.

– From Aaron Sorkin’s commencement address at Syracuse University, May 13 2012. I love that last part even more than I love it when people point out that nobody knows anything, really.

366 Songs 108: Out Of The Game

I’m not the world’s biggest Rufus Wainwright fan by any stretch of the imagination – He’s always been a marvelous performer in search of material that’s worth his attention, to me, with his own songs constantly falling short of that mark – but the vocal hook of his comeback single “Out of The Game” is another of those earworms that works where the rest of the song just doesn’t. Up until the “Look at you/Look at you/Look at you/[Unintelligible]” bit (Seriously, does he say “Sometimes”? “Sundance”? I can’t make it out, but that doesn’t matter, it’s the sound of the word, the feeling of release it brings after that build) at 0:51, this is an astoundingly generic song, but then that hook comes in and decides it likes the look of your inner brain and might just move in. Good job, Mr. Wainwright; here’s hoping there’s a song that has that stickiness all the way through on your new album.

What’s really interesting about the song to me, though, is the sound of it. It’s Mark Ronson producing and he’s apparently moved from the retro-60s of his Amy Winehouse and Version period (and the retro-80s of his Record Collection album, for that matter) to something very firmly 1970s and Californian. Listen to the sound of the guitars here; you can almost imagine syrupy-album cover photo the song would’ve had had it been released in 1976 and fighting with Elton John to top the sales charts. There’s something seductive about such fidelity to the original aural experience, but it leaves me wondering where Ronson will go next. Surely ’90s retro would just sound like ’60s retro again…?

366 Songs 107: Marvelous Dream

A quick jump back to things Albarn for this song off his just-out Dr. Dee album/soundtrack/opera/whatever. I heard an earlier version of this back when it was being called “Clacton” and leaked as a bootleg with a much different arrangement, and it barely floated by without notice. This version, though, has been stuck in my head since first hearing it, much to the amusement/annoyance of my wife who is probably sick of me playing it and replaying it over and over again. It’s the handclaps and backing vocals that start at 1:14, though; there’s something about those that are entirely hypnotic to me, barely there but making all the difference and sounding both contemporary and timeless at the same time. They make it impossible to get the song out of my head.

366 Songs 106: Train Song

I found this song via a compilation on iTunes that I can’t even remember anymore, where it appeared as a cover version by Ben Gibbard and Feist that’s actually far superior to the original, for me. What makes the latter work and the former not in my eyes (in my ears?) is the vocal; Vashti Bunyan may have been the first person to sing this song, but her vocal has that awkward, strained precious quality of a lot of 1960s female folk singers, where their range sounds as if they’re desperately trying to avoid the lower notes as if that would somehow undercut their gender even if it makes them sound breathless and weepy as a result (Is this just me? Mary Hopkins has the same thing). Compare Vashti’s vocal with the Gibbard/Feist version, and the latter just sounds more natural, with a sadness that fits the lyrics:

Besides the gentle melancholy of the instrumentation and melody, the lyrics explain why I love this song as much as I do: “What will I do if there’s someone there with you?” is a great line for a song about returning to a former lover, but it’s somehow eclipsed by the implications of the follow-up, “Maybe someone you’ve always known?” The insecurity there is just beautiful in its honesty, humanity and vulnerability. There’s an entire world in those two lines, everything inside them and left unsaid.

The Joys of Flop Sweat

I’m in a period of work where I feel like I’m continually beginning new gigs and taking nervous first steps with new clients or outlets, which is… continually nervewracking? I was having a conversation the other day about the fact that I’m not even finding the time to enjoy the fact of my new outlets (and one of them in particular is very sweet, considering), because I’m too busy feeling nervous about whether or not what I’m doing is going to be liked by the people footing the bills and the wider audience beyond that. It’s the opposite of familiarity breeding contempt; the lack of familiarity breeding anxiety, over and over again.

(This update brought to you by getting really good notes on a story for a new outlet that I think is going live tomorrow, and the resultant relief quickly followed by “Okay, so how do I actually make those changes?” and “Is ‘that was a fun read’ code for ‘It sucks’?”)