“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.

“What Is Going to Happen, Seeds of Change”

There are songs that are connected, forever, with particular moments and particular emotions; “Seeds,” from Camille’s most recent album (as I write this), is one of these for me. It helps, I guess, that I listened to this song on repeat at the particular time I recall with such clarity whenever I hear this — but there was something about the lines (and the delivery thereof) “How can you serve them?/How can you spoil them?/How can you trade them? How can you grow?” that made me feel as if I couldn’t breathe and needed to cry at the time.

I remember wandering the streets, walking back to where I was staying at the time, feeling at once disconnected from everything I thought about myself and what I wanted out of life — really intense, emotional existential crisis stuff that I’d been ignoring for years — and the sun was setting and I was just listening to this again and again and again. It had come on randomly, and I’d be lying if I said that I’d paid too much attention to the song or even the album it had come from before that. But at that point, it felt as if she was singing directly to me with a code I couldn’t break but could tell was important.

The strength of the memory to me is surprising, synaesthetic. I can remember my legs aching, the hunger in my belly at the time; I can feel the feeling I had at the time as I struggled with the everything in my head and what it might mean for me in the long run. All of that plays in me again when I hear this song, each time, with the verse feeling as if the tension is growing, just constantly ratcheting up until the glorious release of that chorus, the way her voice breaks free of everything being restrictive in what came before.  Each and every time I hear this song, there’s such a beautiful, freeing sense of escape to be found in it. In multiple ways.

“So Many Ways To Pass The Time”

I wish I could explain why this song has been in my head so much recently. Not even the song; it’s literally just been the wan chorus, weak even by the standards of Suede, a band whose choruses have always been weaker than the rest of the songs that surround them. But it has, despite the fact that it’s likely been close to a decade since I purposefully listened to the song before looking for the video for this post. Sometimes, nostalgia works like that — part of your brain fixates on something of little to no consequence, and you’re just stuck there.

This song, despite itself, reminds me not of the era it comes from, but my walking some distance through San Francisco a decade or so later, listening to it and other Coming Up-era B-sides as I went through the city that was still new to me at the time. The feeling that being lost was a wrong turn away at any given moment, but the airiness of this song and the sunshine of the moment making me feel as if nothing could really go that wrong no matter what. It’s a happy memory, one that deserves better than this song, really, but we don’t get to decide what connections get made. We just surrender to the maps made inside our brains and move forward from there.

“If I Seem To Be Reckless With Myself, It’s The Fault of No-One”

My iPhone delivered “Little One” when I wasn’t expecting it the other day, the first time I’d listened to the song in years, most likely. From A Basement on The Hill, the posthumous album the song comes from, was one of those totem albums for me for a few years around its release — something I listened to obsessively in the weeks after its release, then hid from for awhile because it felt too weird, too raw to hear following the death of my mother, before returning to with renewed obsession months later. But listening to “Little One” the other day, it was like hearing it anew, noticing all those thing my Elliott Smith worship had kept me from hearing first time(s) around.

It’s one of those songs that was clearly far from finished at the time of his death; it’s not just the shaky vocal — complete with what had to have been temporary lyrics at points (The “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven” line, obviously, but the entire thing seems more disjointed lyrically than songs from his earlier, finished albums. “Even though some can’t sleep/They’ll need some company” rings false, needing a second draft, for me) — but the fact that tracks seem to drop in and out of the music, as well (especially in the lead up to the bridge, for some reason).

Despite all that, though, it’s maybe the most Beatles-y sounding song Smith ever made, with the possible exception of “A Distorted Reality Is A Necessity To Be Free” from the same album, with its guitar line that sounds as if George Harrison dropped in during recording. But this song, though — the heaviness of the bassline, the way it plods along, or the backwards guitar that’s weaves in and out of the whole thing. The imprecision of the backing vocals, as well, adds to the Beatles-ishness of the whole thing.

There’s a melancholy at play that I can’t properly place, Beatles-wise — there’s some Harrison in there, definitely, but I keep wanting to lean Lennon, for some reason. It’s the thing that truly separates this from the Beatles, for me, though; even in their darkest moments, there was some light there to be found, but “Little One” just sounds like the end, a sad and slow surrender that doesn’t finish as much as ebb away. On an album filled with troublesome moments, this remains the most painful of all of the songs to hear, even moreso because of that last line, hearing “I love you” as a final goodbye.

“All I Know Is That It Won’t Let Me Be Myself”

I’ve become increasingly obsessed with Rotary Connection in the last few days, for reasons that I can’t quite explain. No, that’s not entirely true; one listen to this song, “Love Has Fallen On Me,” and it’s obvious why I’ve become obsessed with them. What I mean, I guess, is that I can’t really remember what brought me to them in the first place. There was some mention of them online, I think, and I did some Googling and Wikipedia-ing and thought, hmm, I should investigate further, and then, bam.

This song, though. The way that the very jazz intro slips into something wonderfully soul-laden — the strings, the backing vocals, the drums shuffling in the background — and then, at 1:18, it becomes something else again. Pop-esque, in some way that’s difficult to explain, and then the strings come in again, and it changes and it’s this song, it just keeps twisting and turning, trying on different genres, slipping in and out of them with ease and remaining difficult to pin down other than “it’s really, really good.”

The restlessness in terms of genre is at odds with the song itself, which even as it strives and surges, remains wonderfully relaxed and easy listening, in the best use of that term. It slips under your skin and just makes you smile. Is this a band that everyone already knows and adores and I’m the last to discover them? It feels like that should be the case. This is such a good song that I can’t believe that Rotary Connection isn’t a secret cult for everyone who’s heard them.

This Time, We Can’t Lose

I read, awhile back, that today is the tenth anniversary of the death of Elliott Smith. I’ve written (many times) before about how much I love Smith’s music; I found it around the time that XO was released, at which point his combination of melancholy, melody and devotion to both the Beatles and Big Star seemed tailor made for me. I saw him live once, during his tour promoting Figure 8, and he was everything I wanted him to be — passionate, loud and funny, and with a band that could convincingly bring his music to life in a way that translated the things I adored so much in the recordings.

Up through his death, he was a figure that was amazingly important to me — my go-to answer if someone had asked me who my favorite musician was, and someone that I listened to constantly, much to the complaints of Kate, who didn’t like the sound of his voice. These days, I listen far less often; there was a point the other week when “Kings Crossing” from From A Basement On The Hill came on the shuffle of my iPhone, and I realized that it’d been months since I’d last listened to him. I’m not sure if it’s that I’m no longer in the kind of emotional place that he resonates so deeply, that I’ve simply moved on for other reasons, or something else, but I felt guilty when I realized how long it had been.

Nonetheless, Elliott Smith remains someone whose work is endlessly essential to me on some core level. His way around melody, harmony and lyrical ambiguity is something I treasure still, and wish that others would be able to play with as effortlessly as he made it look. If only he’d had a happier life, and was still around.