366 Songs 011: Dan Abnormal

Of all the albums Blur put out, The Great Escape is far from one of my favorites, and of all the songs on The Great Escape, “Dan Abnormal” is far from the best song on there. And yet, it’s been stuck in my head over the last few days, and when I listen to it to try and exorcize it from my mind, I realize that there’s a lot I really do like about it after all.

Despite it’s brittle upbeat sound (It’s the “La la la la”s, I think), this is a weirdly dark, violent song (“I want McNormal and chips/Or I’ll blow you to bits,” anyone?) that gets even stranger when you realize that “Dan Abnormal” is songwriter Damon Albarn’s name as an anagram, and also the psuedonym he’s used when guesting on other people’s records. I’ve never quite worked out if this was a song of self-hatred, or just using a name that was available and writing something around it. But it’s a song that really dislikes its star, unlike so many other Blur songs of the period – although there are more on The Great Escape than other Blur albums – and so there’s been a weird edge to it that makes me wonder if there’s more to it than meets the eye.

366 Songs 010: Some Say

I remember reading, around the time that Ocean’s Eleven came out, David Holmes talk about his inclusion of the Elvis song “A Little Less Conversation” on the soundtrack, and his talking about how perfect the song was, how bizarrely in tune with contemporary tastes it seemed despite being recorded almost forty years earlier; he said something along the lines of “All you have to do is add a breakbeat and you have a ready-made hit waiting to happen” (Something that Junkie XL proved a year or so later, doing pretty much just that and having a number one hit). The same is true, I’ve always thought, of Nina Simone’s “Some Say,” which has surprisingly propulsive horns and an amazingly tight rhythm section – Simone may be a jazz singer, but there was a period in the late ’60s when she folded in both pop and R&B sensibilities to create songs like this, which could fit into any one of those three genres – and an opening that just begs to be sampled and repurposed somewhere.

There’s so much about this song that I adore – Simone’s performance is wonderfully relaxed yet powerful at the same time, and the lyrics are weirdly Summer of Love-ish with a smirk (The timing works; this song appeared on the impossibly good Silk and Soul album, in 1967) – but it’s really about the horn section and the drums for me, if I’m honest; just listen to the way the beat simultaneously is relentless and lazy, almost shuffling over itself, or the bassline the horns provide at 0:27. This song is something that just feels irresistible, the sound of someone enjoying what pop music was turning into at the time (Am I the only person who hears Revolver by the Beatles in this, in places?) and wanting to throw her own ideas into the mix. It’s impossible for me to hear this song and not want to sing along, or at least smile.

366 Songs 009: No Time

Today has been far more packed than I’d anticipated, so instead of writing a real entry – or skipping a day within the first month, much as I was tempted to do – I thought I’d go for a song pun with this Monkees classic that always makes me think that Mickey Dolenz deserved far more credit than he actually got.

Nevermind the furthermore, the plea is self-defense.

366 Songs 008: Bath

After yesterday’s Nilsson cover of Randy Newman, here’s Nilsson showing off not just his pipes, but his songwriting; I’m most fond of early Nilsson, before his voice went to shit and he stopped being more than a little orchestral with his arrangements (Although those arrangements may be more down to the producer of the early records, whose name I am completely blanking on right now), and this is a great example of that Harry – there’s just something so wonderfully happy and present about this song, so wonderfully alive, that I almost feel guilty passing on the explanation that it was apparently written about leaving a brothel. Suddenly, that line about “I’m going home to take my bath, but I’ll be back again” has a different meaning, doesn’t it…?

(Seriously, though; I love the horn arrangement, and the fact that Nilsson just ends up scatting for so much of the song. It’s something that just feels “pop,” but owes as much to soul and jazz, underscoring the weird transformative, magpie nature of this kind of thing.)

366 Songs 007: Vine Street

Of all the various versions of “Vine Street” that I’ve heard – and, as a Randy Newman fanboy, I’ve heard a lot – Harry Nilsson’s take, from the Nilsson Sings Newman album that is otherwise surprisingly missable considering the people involved, is by far my favorite. It’s not just that it starts with “Anita,” a really spectacular little pop song that’s not attached to any other version (and something that I wish Newman would expand into a full song at some point), although that’s a massive mark in its favor; instead, it’s the texture and complexity of vocals that Nilsson brings to it, the swooping loveliness that bolsters and emboldens what starts (from the actual beginning of “Vine Street” itself, the “That’s a tape/that we made”) as tired and reticent and ends up as something… what? “Happy,” perhaps, or at least something that’s stronger and more alive when remembering the past than considering the present. Listen to the power in the vocals, the way Nilsson fearlessly throws himself around the melody when he remembers his group “sitting out on the stoop/and we’d play for her/the songs she liked best to have us play” (The showmanship, the showing off, when he gets to that second “play,” it’s so wonderful), and compare that to either the timid “That’s a tape…” earlier or the end of the song, as the harmonies fall away and he’s left alone again, the voice faltering slightly… It’s an incredible performance, a complete story just in its aural quality even ignoring Newman’s lyrics.

Compare this to Newman’s demo – written, I think, for Van Dyke Parks – and, unsurprisingly, the song feels entirely different, in part because Newman at his best could never perform the same kind of vocal acrobatics that Nilsson excelled in, but there’s a tenderness in there that Nilsson is missing because he was so fucking amazing and swinging from word to word when he really got going. The end of the demo, with Newman just vamping a dramatic ending, works for me too – a kind of “fuck you, I’m done” that feels honest and in keeping with the “I’m old and I know it” nature of the rest of the song.

Here’s the version of the song that was, I think, first released, Van Dyke Parks’ version from Song Cycle… It’s filled with what we’ll call his “trademark orchestral touches,” but I can’t help but feel that it’s too orchestrated, and the song itself gets entirely lost in there, distended in prettiness and melodrama until it falls apart:

Give me Harry Nilsson any day. I can believe that that man would sit on a stoop and play, if nothing else. If only he’d played more of that “Anita” song…

366 Songs 006: Get Duffy

The soundtrack to a lot of my final years in art school, and the beginning of my explorations into music that was weirder and a lot more out there than the Britpop I’d been listening to while growing up past what was considered to be growing up, Primal Scream’s Vanishing Point was one of those albums that was scattered and a mess in the good way, a mix of multiple influences that doesn’t necessarily hang together in the most coherent way, but nonetheless works, somehow (The album that followed it, XTMNTR, is far more cohesive, but I’m tempted to say not something that’s aged as well as Vanishing Point. YMMV, as the saying goes). Of the various songs on the album, “Get Duffy” was probably the one that stuck in my head in a way that I didn’t expect, pulling all manner of late ’60s/early ’70s sounds – There’s Lalo Schifrin in here, some Sun Ra, some free jazz that I can’t recognize – into something that sounds like it should’ve been played over the opening titles of a movie that would’ve featured washed-out colors and men driving around rainy streets at night.

Most (not all, I don’t think? It’s been awhile since I’ve listened to the album, and I can’t remember) of Vanishing Point was remixed into dub versions for the Echo Dek spin-off album, and while in most cases that just meant lazily turning up the echo and changing the drums, “Get Duffy” – named, by the way, for Martin Duffy, the band’s keyboard player, became “Duffed Up,” which you can easily imagine being the b-side of “Get Duffy” in some imaginary world where that had turned out to be a hit single. The saxes in “Duffed Up” are just amazing:

366 Songs 005: Mellow Doubt

Before there was Belle and Sebastian and Camera Obscura, there was but one choice for you if you were Scottish and a romantic fool, and that was Teenage Fanclub, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s all because of “Mellow Doubt,” their sappy-as-all-hell-but-I-have-felt-at-one-point-it-was-exactly-how-I-was-feeling-and-I-doubt-I’m-alone first single from their magnum opus, Grand Prix. In the middle of Britpop, all sneers and self-consciousness and style and bravado, this song came out and was as much the opposite of The Scene as it was part of it. There’s little attempt to hide behind Colin Zeals or soon-she-iiiiiiiiines or whatever here, and even if the title is a pun (“Mellow Doubt” = “Mellowed Out,” in case you hadn’t said it out loud and realized for yourself yet), it’s also a promise that the song lives up to not only in its arrangement, but its lyrics: “I’m in trouble, and I know it,” Norman Blake sings, but he sounds…well,  at peace with it, in some way, or at least realizing that this is just the way things are going to be; it’s a very passive song, even before you get to “There is no choice/in what I must do” towards the end.

But it’s a beautiful little song, heartfelt and honest, and that’s why it works. I wasn’t joking when I said above that I’ve thought this was an exact description of how I’ve felt at times, and that’s what makes it so wonderful, in its way. Everyone knows what this feels like, and everyone wants this feeling to go away for whoever’s feeling it.

Weird but true: When this was released as a single, there were two different versions, the album version (as above), and this “alternative version” (so below), which was in a different key. Why? Just because, really. It was the ’90s.

366 Songs 004: Sweet Adeline

Probably the first of many Elliott Smith songs to appear across the next year, this song’s been in my head for some reason recently that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s the opening track of XO, his second last/third last album depending on whether or not you count the posthumous From A Basement on The Hill (I do, for what little it’s worth; it’s got a lot of my favorite Elliott Smith moments on it, even though it’s haunting and heartbreaking and magically charged in all manner of weird ways that I still feel a little uncomfortable with), and I’m never quite sure whether or not I consider it a full song or just a smart and somewhat funny musical trick to introduce people to the musical mindset of the album.

It opens, after all, like all manner of earlier Elliott Smith songs, finger-picking and melancholy lyrics (“Cut this picture into you and me/Burn it backwards, kill this history” being the opening lines, which are the kind of thing that feel very Smithian, at once personal and universal because who hasn’t felt that kind of sadness and grief at the end of a relationship?), but after the second verse, the song explodes into… a full band, perhaps? But no, not really; it explodes into a full arrangement, perhaps, with the bridge – There’s no chorus to this song, hence me wondering at times whether it’s a full song or not; it goes verse/verse/bridge/verse – before fading back into something quieter and sadder for the final verse. But it’s that explosion that’s the wonderful thing, a surprise if you’ve never heard the song before but every other time from then, the release of pressure that you can feel build up until that point (The mellotron quietly coming in on the second verse!)… I’m not synaesthetic, but the way the bridge just opens into the drums, the piano, the bass always makes me think of a timelapse sequence of a flower blooming, before withering and dying, or a firework exploding. Something lovely but temporary, and gone so quickly that you can’t even really remember what it was like properly by the time you’ve realized what had happened.

366 Songs 003: Allez Allez Allez

I said, on the spectacular (and spectacularly pointless) ThisIsMyJam website recently that this was my song of 2011, although I said that I wasn’t quite sure why, which isn’t exactly true. The problem isn’t that I don’t know why I love the song, but that there’s so much about it that appeals to me that I can’t say, this, it’s this that makes the difference. It’s not even the song, as such, that I adore so endlessly, but the performance, the production: The sound of the plucked strings, and the tension in their contrast with the squelchy bass when it comes in; the backmasking of the vocals midway through the song, the way that the song builds then pauses, reversing itself, deconstructs itself and ends with that lovely playful string plucking again. That I don’t speak French adds to my enjoyment in a way – Music Hole and songs from the album this song comes from, Ilo Veyou, have taught me that I actually love Camille as a lyricist as much as I do a performer, but when I don’t know what she’s singing and it’s as repetitive as it is here, her voice becomes another instrument, another component in the whole, and there’s something compelling to me about that.

366 Songs 002: I Bet That You Look Good On The Dancefloor

Listening to the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast the other day, someone called Adele’s “Someone Like You” a new standard, and said something along the lines of “that’s the rarest of things in music, how often does a new standard come about?” Hearing that, I immediately thought of this song, which might not be a standard, but feels like it’s something that immediately became part of the musical landscape in a way that most songs can only dream of.

I’ve not really kept up with the Arctic Monkeys past their second album – One of the things I most miss about the U.K. is the way that you can keep up on what’s happening in pop music so easily, in a way that you really can’t do in the U.S. – but that debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, was one of those undeniable albums that made you stop what you were doing and pay attention, and this song is one of the standout tracks, filled with energy and Alex Turner’s hilarious, ambivalent, lyrics (“I wish you’d stop ignoring me, because it’s sending me to despair/Without a sound, yeah, you’re calling me, and I don’t think it’s very fair”) that feel true to anyone who’s ever crushed on someone at a club. It’s a “Teenage Kicks” for today’s generation (Yesterday’s generation? It’s seven years old now, after all), a song about being young and everything that means that’s compelling and honest and filled with life.

Of course, everyone attempted cover versions, it feels like, with varying levels of success:

My favorite version was the Sugababes, those manipulated, eminently replaceble pop princesses who refashion the spikey guitar pop into something more mainstream and almost make it sound like their version is a response to the original:

Clearly, there’s a mash-up and/or Glee-style cover version mixing the two waiting to happen there. This might not really be a “standard” – Do standards have to be more timeless and ageless, working no matter who sings it and where they are in their lives? Probably – but it should be, I think. Maybe we should start a list of alternative standards somewhere, songs that should live forever and belong to everyone.