“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.

“Listen, The Sky Will Sing this Song as it Burns Up All The Memories”

This song has been in my head ever since I saw Mirah perform it with the Portland Symphony this past weekend, for two reasons in particular. Firstly, the bridge(?) melody that starts at 0:58 and the way it acts as counter to everything around it but also manages to amp up the expectation and tension before the strings crash back in, and secondly, the lyrics “And I’m so number one that it’s a shame, a shame/That you let other numbers in the game.” I have no idea why, but those lyrics seem so perfect to me.

I don’t pay enough attention to Mirah’s lyrics, which is a shame; I’m too often smitten by her melodies and her arrangements (“The Dogs of B.A.”! “Country of the Future”! Both have such wonderfully overwhelming arrangements, can you blame me? This one, too — that bass line at 3:38 that acts like a tuba), but she has a wonderful way with words that I need to recognize, too.

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.