Pass the Biscuits, Please

I went through this period, recently, where I got utterly obsessed with this song. I’ve known it for years, of course; who doesn’t? But the version that was in my head wasn’t Bobby Gentry’s original — it was a cover by Sinead O’Connor that slowed everything down and made the tragedy in the lyrics ache through the every sound of the thing.

Gentry, on the other hand, did something different. Listen to her version and, if you can forget about what happened to poor Billie Joe, everything almost sounds deceptively upbeat. There’s a lightness to the fingerpicking of the guitar, a romance to those swooning strings — those strings, which swoop in and out of the song as punctuation, fascinate me; they sound almost too modern to fit with the context and era the song was recorded, to me — and, all told, a casualness to Gentry’s performance as a whole that’s utterly winning. It plays like the character she’s portraying, someone affecting disinterest over the dinner table, but inside, deeply affected by what’s happened.

It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with the idea of song as method acting — I grew up in the Britpop era of Blur, after all — but “Ode to Billie Joe” wasn’t a song that did that, in my head. It was a slow, painful, melancholy thing. Hearing the original, actually listening to Gentry’s version, was a revelation that turned into an obsession, replaying it over and over to check I wasn’t imagining it.

Full Moon Tonight, Everything’s Alright

I know, if I’m honest, that it’s the product of an utterly cynical and insincere process, yet there’s something about Todd Rundgren’s “Wolfman Jack” that strikes me as one of the most upbeat, happy and instantaneous songs ever made, every single time that I hear it.

There’s significant cognitive dissonance between knowing, on some deep primal level, that Rundgren — a notorious studio wizard (a true star, no less) — probably spent far too long perfecting every little last piece of every single thing that you hear in its 2:54 run time, from the amount of the echo of the opening sax to the “whoo-oo-oo-oo-oohhh” harmonies in the background, and the emotional rush that comes to me every time I hear the song. It sounds so effortless, and yet, I know, there was doubtlessly a lot of effort into making that the case.

And yet: It’s this beautiful, over-the-top piece of nostalgia for something that likely never existed, and something that seems to rejoice in going just that little bit further than you expect even when you think you know how ridiculous the whole thing is. (The falsetto at the end of “You can’t do this to me” at 1:53, for example.)

I’d heard some Todd Rundgren before this song, and never quite got it; I distinctly remember hearing “I Saw The Light” and going, “This is what people went so nuts over? I don’t get it.” But when I heard this for the first time, I had a mild epiphany; I knew this wasn’t what the majority of his music sounded like — or, really, anything beyond this song — but for the almost-three minutes it lasted, I didn’t care. This, I decided, was someone I could listen to for days on end.

(Strange but true; I can never listen to this song just once. I always, without fail, play it through a second time at least.)

But It’s Brilliant Anyway

It was a tradition that happened every July 4, for a number of years: My putting on Elliott Smith’s “Independence Day” in the morning, and enjoying the repeated “Everybody knows,” as if it’s some kind of mantra that completed the day the same way that Christmas only truly becomes real when I’ve listened to Low’s “Just Like Christmas” or Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody.”

It’s not a song that’s actually about July 4, of course; the only one of those I can actually think of comes from Holiday Inn, a genuinely wonderful song with at least one genuinely terrible moment of cringeworthy racism: The blackface number, “Abraham,” which also happens to be one of the most catchy songs of the entire movie.  But nonetheless, “Independence Day” became something that I did for years every July 4, just for myself. A newly created tradition I gave to myself when I arrived in the States and enjoyed the day for the first time, and the following years. A way to make the holiday mine, as opposed to finding it off-putting and alien.

(As someone who came to the States, the patriotism displayed on July 4, or at other specific times and situations, can be disorienting and confusing, if not accidentally disturbing and/or hilarious.)

This year, I listened to it again. The first time in years, as it happened; it felt like something I needed to do, a promise to myself fulfilled. I didn’t realize how much it meant to me until I heard that “Everybody knows, everybody knowseverybody knows,” with the harmonies gliding in, once again.

I Am Dented And Spent With High Treason

Elton John was very much not my bag, for a number of years; he was one of a number of bands and singers that I’d decided that about, for reasons that didn’t amount to much more than, I’ve seen them or heard them when I was a kid and wasn’t into it, so I guess they’re just out forever. In my defense, I grew up in an era where Elton John was releasing things like “I’m Still Standing,” and then “Sacrifice,” or worse, the Princess Diana version of “Candle in the Wind.” He didn’t really feel like someone worth re-evaluating, not when there were a million other records to be listened to and enjoyed.

It changed for me as the result of reading a biography of John, not that long ago; I read it because I was oddly interested in his 1970s persona without having listened to that much of his music from that period, and even that, not too closely. There was an explanation about the level of his output at the start of his career, and the level of his success — 5% of all worldwide record sales belonged to him! That remains absolutely ridiculous to me — that I thought that I probably should take another listen and see what I thought.

I’m not sure what it was about “Take Me To The Pilot” that caught in my head; the stumbling piano at the start or the propulsive sound of the whole thing that feels as if the whole song is just charging forward, determined to get to the end come hell or high water.

There’s a dynamism here — a hunger — that was entirely at odds with my idea of who Elton John was, and a sense of fun, as well. It’s clearly the work of a younger musician than the one I knew, but all for the good. Things are more rough and less fully-formed, but more playful and less precious, as well, and I found myself responding really strongly to that difference. This was someone I wanted to hear more from, and someone I wanted to follow to other songs.

That the lyrics are, to be polite, absolute nonsense, helped considerably: at first, I strained to understand what John was singing as if there was perhaps some arcane code or wisdom to be ascertained, but the reality, the realization that, no, this really is just a bunch of meaningless words strung together, felt less like a frustration and more like a strange gift waiting for me at the end. Somehow, everything was more playful than I’d imagined.

This is a song that I can imagine people falling in love with, and expecting great things from the performer going forward. Even more than the album version, the live version released a handful of months later. Who wouldn’t want more of this? And suddenly, Elton John came alive, finally, for the first time.

D’You Get What I Feel? Yeah Yeah Yeah

There was a time, if you can believe it, when Heavy Stereo was a band people talked about as if they were the next Oasis. In some respects, it made sense — like the Brothers Gallagher, they were on Creation Records, and they were slavishly devoted to taking recognizable tropes of beloved music from the past and covering them with a sluggishness that could be considered “Britpop Indie Du Jour,” I guess — but there was no mistaking that, despite certain moments of joy (The lead guitar collapsing at 0:29 in the video above, for example, or even just the earworm of “Do you smile/When you open your eyes/In the moooooorrrrning”), there just wasn’t the tunefulness or melodic gift of Oasis present. The very thing that made Oasis stand out and transcend all of the jokes at their expense just… wasn’t there.

Heavy Stereo didn’t make it, of course; the first album flopped and there wasn’t a second. Gem Archer, the lead singer/guitarist/songwriter found a fitting second career, however, when he ended up joining Oasis in 2000, just in time for the underrated-but-still-crap Standing on the Shoulder of Giants.

He’d go on to write a bunch of material for the band in its dying days, and those songs sounded not unlike what’s above: Competent, occasionally catchy, and entirely reliant on the performances to lift them out the mire. Thankfully, Liam Gallagher and the rest of the band had far more charm than Heavy Stereo to pull that off.

Sometimes, I still get this song stuck in my head. I don’t know what I did to deserve it.

“No Matter Where You Go”


Arthur Lee is one of those iconic figures who existed on the periphery of my musical experience; Forever Changes was an album I attempted to get into a number of times in the 1990s, frustrated by my failure to “get it” for the dumbest of reasons — the CD version that existed in the UK was mixed far too quietly and that distracted me every single time I listened — even though it was constantly referenced as this deeply influential, important piece of music. “Alone Again Or” was, for the longest time, the only Love song that I could actually recognize, and the band was, just like the Mamas and the Papas, this band I knew that I would love if only I could find a way inside. “Always See Your Face” was that way.

Like “Alone Again Or,” it’s a gentle song, despite how hard they’re trying to go as everything heads towards its close; it remains charmingly amiable thanks to the descending horn parts and Lee’s understated scatting during the guitar solo, not to mention the wide open spaces formed by the guitar riff at the song’s center. There’s just something inviting about the sound of it, inherently.

Lyrically, it’s vague to what should be the point of meaningless, but somehow the opposite is true. Maybe it’s Lee’s delivery, perhaps the universality of the sentiment — which feels like it comes directly from the blues, in its practiced melancholy — but “Won’t somebody please help me with my miseries/Can’t somebody see, yeah, what this world has done to me?” feels true on some primal level. It’s surprisingly potent, to me, at least.

I would hear this song in movies or TV shows, or out in the real world somewhere, and it’d stick with me for days after: The vocal melody of that first, “Won’t somebody please,” or the horns moving down slowly. Eventually, haunted by it, I looked it up and fell in love. It seems fitting for a song about being unable to escape something.

 

“Always There To Confuse And Fool You”

I can still remember the first time I heard this song, surprisingly clearly; I was in the upstairs living room of the house I grew up in — we called it the “TV room,” for some reason, despite the fact that we didn’t use it to watch TV, and for much of my childhood, there wasn’t even a TV in there — and it was summer, or at least sunny. I was listening to Jakki Brambles on Radio 1, and she was very excited to play this for… maybe the first time, perhaps? How much of this actually happened, versus how much I’ve imagined and convinced myself is true, is entirely open to conjecture.

The song, though, fits that period in my memory. It sounds dated and uncertain, as Weller rips off “Dear Prudence” and marries it to audio that sounds as if he was still trying to get over his Style Council days. Was he still technically calling himself “The Paul Weller Experience” at the time this was released as a single? Perhaps.

All of that, from the awkward horn stabs to the early Brendan Lynch beeps and boops to the idea that “The Paul Weller Experience” was anything other than an embarrassment, make up the early 1990s as they exist in my head; an era of no-one quite knowing what anything is going to be, but trying out new things and seeing how they feel. It’s not the Paul Weller who became known as The Modfather just yet, but all the ingredients are there, waiting to be mixed right.

The same could be said for me at the time, perhaps, although I wouldn’t be mixed right for years after that (if it’s ever happened, I add, self-consciously). But I can’t help but feel as if this song was me, in a way, back then: Making tentative steps into the future and getting as much wrong as right in terms of what would stick around.

I love it more because of that personification, arguably (certainly) more than it deserves. It’s a song that even Weller fans would admit is one of his lesser singles, but every time I hear even a snippet of it, I find myself wanting to listen to the whole thing, remembering the uncertainty it represents with undisguised fondness.

“I Could Have Burned Your Fate In The Sand”

I didn’t hear the T-Rex version of “Life’s A Gas” for years; I knew it from an Alex Chilton cover that — maybe it was on a bootleg, or on a live recording off the radio or something? I remember that I didn’t come by it honestly, if that makes sense, and I remember to this day how lazy and scuzzy it sounded. I think Teenage Fanclub were being Chilton’s backing band, and the whole thing sounded near-shambolic, which just made it so much more compelling to listen to, over and over and over again.

I remember going to record stores and toying with the “Electric Warrior” CD over and over again, as well, wondering if it was worth the money just for that one track. (This was before my interest in Bolan set in, and back when I was poor enough that buying a CD was a commitment that I didn’t make easily.) It never seemed fully worth it, and so it was years later when I finally heard the original version of the song, with Bolan’s ethereal vocals feeling the very opposite of Chilton’s, with the pristine guitar feeling light and airy compared to the version I knew.

The original version of the song, to this day, feels almost like a ghost, or perhaps like a skeleton or structure that exists as much in its absence than what is actually present. I feel, when I listen to it, as if I am following that guitar line through a physical space, through the bones of the song. It feels spacious.

This despite the lyrics of the song, which are almost comically lackadaisical, bordering on depressed: “I could have placed our love in the sky, but it really doesn’t matter at all, no, it really doesn’t matter at all…” It’s a proto-slacker song, perhaps, made decades too early. Something that, almost fittingly, I never got around to actually properly listening to until it was easy enough for me to do so without expending any significant effort. Maybe Marc would have approved.

“Stepped Out Of My Zone”

There are times where it feels as if I’ve outgrown the chance to discover new music. It’s not true, of course, and new favorite songs still appear in my life on a fairly regular, if somewhat slow, basis. But there was once a point where it happened all the time; I was listening to more music then, for one thing — the radio seemed like a constant companion, and there were clubs to go to, concerts to see — and it felt like I’d trip over something I’d never heard before but grew obsessed with on a weekly basis, if not more.

All of which is to say that the experience of hearing “Elevate” by DJ Khalil at the end of Spider-Man:Into the Spider-Verse was this thing that was at once revelatory and comfortably familiar, in a way.

It’s music as onomatopoeia, the song itself. The riff feeling like tension itself, building and building with every repeat — elevating, of course — while the lyric of the chorus underscores that feeling, explains what you’re listening to: “Gotta go hard/I ain’t got time to waste/I gotta go high/I gotta elevate.”

(The callbacks work to that effect, too; Gotta go hard being met with another, more urgent gotta go hard. It builds the tension even further; ain’t got no time.)

And each verse works off that specific tension, but the song never relaxes, despite that. The whole thing feels amped, excited, exciting; it matches the energy of the (amazing, thrilling) movie it belongs to and the more, leaving you with your head spinning and your feet itching to move. It’s utterly compelling, completely catchy. I left the theater wanting to hear the song again immediately, and listened to the song repeatedly over the next few days, each listen just upping my desire to play it again and again. Elevating.

“To Say How Good, To Say How Strong”

I made a Spotify playlist, for 2019 to begin. Something that was less a statement about what I was leaving and more what laid ahead — 2018 was an unimaginably hard year in so many ways, and I just wanted to leave it there to die. (This was, for all kinds of reasons, never going to happen; parts of what made it so hard were always going to live on into 2019, and when the New Year finally did arrive, it came in like a surprise, somehow. I remember on December 31 thinking, Wait, isn’t this early?) So, I made this playlist that was, for want of a better way to put it, songs about my emotional state and being strong and starting over and and and I’m sure you can imagine the kind of thing.

Mirah’s “Energy” was the first song on it.

I love Mirah. I have done for years, but my affection for her music has only grown in recent years, and her most recent album may be one of my favorites, and this track — the last one on there — one of my favorite songs from her altogether. I love the sonic structure of it (The second half feeling like a response to the first, a defiant build from the cautious optimism of what had come before), and I love the language of it, too: “No, we can’t choose/How the day falls/How the stars lift/We can just, we can just give tenderness,” or especially, “When I’m mad and I’m burdened/And I’m feelin’ uncertain/And I just want to lay down my mind/I’ll wake up again/And a new day begin with more energy.”

It’s a song that’s a little sad, a little tired and a lot ready to keep going because things will get better. And that’s exactly what I needed to start my year. “We only know that it’s not that easy,” indeed.