That Would Be Something

I’ve been on a “Paul McCartney’s solo career immediately after the Beatles” kick lately, after realizing just how much I’d underrated his work on those last couple of Beatles albums. There’s a lot happening in McCartney in particular that feels just weirdly important to the music that I’d grow up loving, if that makes sense — it’s both throwaway (The number of instrumentals! “Junk” appearing twice!), yet some of the arrangements (especially “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “Singalong Junk”) are just perfect. It’s so much more influential than I’d realized, I think.

(It’s also one of those albums that makes me wish I had any musical talent; I wish I could something like this album, in so many ways.)

Have We Decided If We Like Being Part of The Plan?

My favorite thing about “Flick of The Finger,” I think, is that it’s the first track of the second Beady Eye album, BE. Everything about it says that it’s a classic opening track to an album, after all; it has the right mix of excitement – provided here, almost entirely, by the horns, although I find myself weirdly drawn to Liam Gallagher’s half-assed “come on” at 2:00 – and claustrophobia, as if you get the feeling that this is the start of something, instead of a full experience in and of itself. It’s a song that, despite the musical build throughout the entire thing (and it does have an almost classic structure in that way), never quite peaks, but just teases something that remains out of reach.

(Also, again with the musical thievery – There’s Iggy and the Stooges in there, and the spoken word finale is, of course, straight out of “I Am The Walrus” by the Beatles. My favorite reference is the one to the band’s old band, though: “I see the wonder of life and look for the wall,” Liam sings at one point. Ah, was “Wonderwall” really that long ago…?)

“How Did You Make Me Feel Like I Couldn’t Feel?”

The Portland Cello Project’s Beck Hansen’s Song Reader album has been the soundtrack to a lot of my 2013 so far; it started as something I bought/listened to as a reminder of their “Beck The Halls” Christmas concert from the end of last year (Where the above video was recorded; if you can imagine the view from the left of the audience, about midway back, that was me), but it’s unfolded into more of a delight than simply nostalgia the more I listen. Here’s another video from the December show, with the spectacular Jolie Holland providing amazing vocals (Seriously, these are vocals to die for), to give you an idea of what you missed.

Part of the appeal is hearing the music performed in such an un-Beck way; the PCP and guest vocalists give the music more of a jazzy feel, with some easy listening thrown in at times (“Just Noise” could be a Bacharach song), that manages to free the songs from what you’d expect of Beck, and makes his music into something… else, somehow. The humor is allowed to come through, in a way that his own performances tend to underplay for whatever reason. Check out “Last Night, You Were A Dream” and imagine it being performed by Beck; the joke would somehow feel flatter, somehow…?

“Your Sister Says That I’m No Good/I’d Reassure Her If I Could”

“You and Your Sister” is, in the strangest of ways, a disco song for me.

I mean, obviously, it’s not; it’s hardly danceable, and there’s nothing as insistent about it as the best (or even the worst) disco. You could hardly call it a dancefloor filler, although you could probably imagine it clearing a dancefloor if given the chance. But what I mean by comparing it to disco is it’s a song which sounds perfect, even if its lyrically banal at best.

The opening to the song is a perfect example of its clumsiness: “They say my love for you ain’t real/But they don’t know how real it feels.” That’s just… horrible. Similarly, “All I want to do/Is to spend some time with you/So I can hold you” may have an innocent honesty to it, but it’s bordering on twee if not fully in that area already. Chris Bell may have written some great stuff for Big Star’s first album, but the lyrics of “You and Your Sister” needed a second pass.

Despite that, though… Just listen to the song. The way that Alex Chilton’s vocals come in 0:48, grounding Bell’s voice in a strange way that strengthens it without swamping it (Chilton’s “Plans fail every day/I want to hear you say” at 1:23 is just lovely, too). Not that Bell’s vocal isn’t a thing of greatness on its own – The way his voice cracks on “time” at 0:34 gets me every single time I listen.

The arrangement, which goes from just the finger-picked acoustic guitar to the addition of a gorgeous string counter-melody by the end of the song (The strings falling as the guitar rises, which is such a simple but graceful move), is also worth paying attention to. By the end of the song, when you have the strings playing against the guitar and Chilton and Bell’s vocals crossing over each other, it just seems utterly perfect. As long as you don’t try to pay attention to the lyrics.

“It’s The Sound of Sciiiiiiiiii Ence. The Souuuuuhnd. Of. Sci. Ence.”

Being a massive Beatles fan, it’s no surprise that “The Sound of Science” is my favorite Beastie Boys track. I can actually still remember hearing it for the first time, one night in 1994 on Chris Morris’ short-lived Radio 1 show, and thinking “Wait, is that sampling The Beatles?” in surprise. The smartness of the samples – from “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (both versions, unless I’m mishearing) and “The End,” respectively – is one of the reasons that I love the song so much, the way that the first three sound at once familiar and unusual, with the looped drums from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)” giving the song more impetus and immediacy than the final version arguably has.

The sampled guitar from “The End” sounds great, too, but what I love most about the song is the placement of that guitar. There’s something just perfect to me about the juxtaposition of Mike D’s “Do whatcha like, huh?” at 1:57 with the guitar that immediately follows – It gives the guitar more attitude, somehow, and yet feels utterly appropriate for the track it’s lifted from (“The End” being a series of improvised guitar solos traded between John, George and Paul, literally them doing what they like, even as the song’s lyrics suggest that we be a little more conscientious in our actions) and the Beatles in general.

Accidentally or otherwise, that verbal shrug is something that I always attribute not to the Beasties, but to the Beatles now; somehow, it switched tracks in my brain and belongs with them. I like to think that the Beatles that were, back when, would’ve heard this track and wished they’d made it themselves.

Rock and Roll Will Never Die

Life during Primal Scream’s druggiest period must have been a constant stream of surprises. When I tell them that it’s hard to imagine a rock’n’roll band sitting down to write certain songs on More Light (the sprawling River of Pain’s impromptu orchestral crescendo being a good example), they look unsure as to what I mean, so I illustrate the example by saying that it’s easier, for example, to picture them writing a Stonesy guitar number like 1994’s Rocks.

“Rocks?” splutters Innes. “I didn’t even know we’d written it!”

At first I assume he’s joking but it turns out he’s deadly serious.

“[Alan] McGee phoned us up going: “You’ve got a great song,” and I thought: what the fuck are you talking about?”

“I can definitely remember recording it,” adds Gillespie, as if this deserves some kind of prize.

From here.

Oh, Primal Scream. Never change.

(I am very much looking forward to the new album.)

Truth And Lies Truth And Lies Truth And Lies

There is something weirdly retro about this new Primal Scream song – I think it’s the saxophone riff – but the nine minute full-length version of the song is far superior to the four minute radio edit, just weirder enough, and somehow relaxed enough to give Bobby Gillespie’s pop culture auto-critique lyrics the space to be heard in a way that the shorter version doesn’t. This is a truly odd song, and something to appreciate because of that. Even with that terrible chorus.

(I do find the video creepily misogynistic, though.)

I’ve Got A Healthy Feeling, A Sleepy Feeling

The other day, I tweeted something to the effect of “Gorillaz started with Blur’s ‘Cowboy Song’ in 1998,” in response to the marvelous Jeff Parker suggesting that the roots of Damon Albarn’s magical merry-go-round of a supergroup could be found in “Music Is My Radar,” the Blur single from 2000. Annoyingly, it’s something that’s stuck in my head ever since, because it’s not exactly right, but it bears thinking about for a second or two.

For those who haven’t heard “Cowboy Song,” you shouldn’t feel too bad; it was essentially hidden away on a movie soundtrack (for a film called Dead Man on Campus which I’ve otherwise never heard of), and stayed in the vaults otherwise until last year’s massive Blur box set reissue that had everything that band had ever released included. It’s a fairly minor song, for the most part, as you can hear for yourself:

Because I know that you’re breathless with anticipation to know, there’re three reasons why this track always makes me think of it as an origin of Gorillaz. First off, the vocals, which showcase Albarn’s two Gorillaz styles for, maybe, the first time in a Blur track (and, therefore, anything that was released): Mumbling-sing-song and Falsetto-whining. I say that as a fan, for what it’s worth, but you know what I mean; Albarn’s Gorillaz vocals tend to be messier, lazier and sloppier than his Blur vocals for the most part – perhaps the Think Tank vocals aside – and this feels like the earliest example of what would later be described as his “2D” vocal persona making a public appearance.

Secondly, there’s the fact that “Cowboy Song” appears to have been constructed after-the-fact in the studio from bits and pieces of other songs, most obviously “All We Want,” a song recorded during the time of the 1997 self-titled Blur album that would eventually show up in 1999 as a b-side for “Tender” (The bass and drums for “Cowboy Song” are, as best I can tell, from “All We Want,” but it’s most obvious at 2:13 of “Cowboy Song,” which starts a section that’s pretty much exactly the same as the portion beginning 0:13 of “All We Want”).

The move from… “traditionally-performed/recorded” songs to something constructed after the fact, for want of a better way of putting it, struck me as the beginnings of the flexibility in Albarn’s mind as a songwriter that felt important to the development of Gorillaz, if that makes sense.

And then, finally, there’s the extended outro of “Cowboy Song,” which in both “outstaying its welcome” value and the appearance of what sounds like a melodica down in the mix, feels particularly reminiscent of the outro to “Clint Eastwood”:

(Seriously, I love “Clint Eastwood,” but that outro is far, far too long.)

Parker wasn’t wrong, though: “Music Is My Radar” does have a lot of proto-Gorillaz in there, in terms of melodica and nonsense lyrics (“Tony Allen got me dancing” also offering foreshadowing to the Albarn/Allen collaborations on The Good, The Bad and The Queen, Rocket Juice and The Moon and Dr. Dee), and the same year’s “Time Keeps on Slipping,” Albarn’s guestshot on Deltron 3030 is even further along the road to the band’s existence, a Gorillaz track in all but name thanks to the Albarn/Del tha Funkee Homosapien/Dan the Automator combination:

The missing link between “Cowboy Song” and these later songs is likely 1999’s “X-Offender,” a remix of the 13 track “Bugman” credited to “Control Freak” – who was, of course, Albarn himself. There’s a mass of future Gorillaz DNA in this one, whether in the faux samba rhythm (and reggae drums in the background), synth bass lines, jazzy piano break (Shades of Gorillaz‘ “Latin Simone”) or the laid back, increasingly meandering lead vocal or harmonized backing vocals.

Think about all of this now, it’s no wonder that I was kind of disappointed with that first Gorillaz album when it came out; it really wasn’t a radical departure from what had come before after all, just more of a sidestep in a direction Albarn had been quietly thinking about for some time…

366 Songs 366: What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?

Firstly, anyone who didn’t think that I was going to go with this song for the final day of the year, you really don’t know me that well, do you?

This is such a lovely song in almost every incarnation, if only for the longing and hopefulness in the lyric and the swooping melody. “Oh, but in case I stand a little chance/Here comes the jackpot question in advance…” How can you fail to fall for a song that says that? Myself, I’m partial to the Rufus version above; I think the plain arrangement and his moaning vocals fit especially well, for some reason, but there’s no denying that Ella made it swing like few others:

And so, we come to the end of this year-long experiment to write about a song every day. It failed, in many ways – I didn’t write one a day, and had to play catch-up numerous times – but it was fun nonetheless, even when it felt like a broken promise hanging over my head. I’ve been emailed to ask if I’ll be continuing it in the new year, and I doubt it; I’ll search for new ways to write about music and find my footing there, I think (An album a month, maybe?), and I want to get away from promising something every day because I know from experience that that’s not always possible for various reasons. As to where that’ll leave this blog… Well, we’ll see together, I think. 2012 has been, as I’ve said elsewhere, a rough year and as part of 2013’s correction course, I want to try and find a new creative equilibrium to tamp off the excesses of work. I suspect this site will play some part in that, even if I don’t know what form it’ll take.

Happy New Year, everyone reading this, wherever and whoever you are. May your next 366 songs, and days (Well, 365, of course; next year isn’t a leap year), be something to leave you smiling.

366 Songs 365: Coming Up Roses

A song that’s beautiful in a particularly ugly, self-aware and urban sense (“The moon is a sickle cell/It’ll kill you in time”), “Coming Up Roses” was the soundtrack to a particularly weird and unhealthy post-break-up period of my life way back when, and its apathetic shuffle and broken-hearted poetry felt particularly apt at the time for the person I was back then. To me now, there’s a lot of nostalgia and memory wrapped up in it, but it feels like a nascent, incomplete version of everything that Elliott Smith would come to embody in later life. There’s a hint of his use of harmony vocals and surprising melody, but the only thing that I have think of when I think of Smith now that’s truly there in this song is the fragility. There’s a sense that this song is a promise of what lies ahead, but one so barely-there that it could burst at any second like a bubble floating around in the air, waiting to disappear.