366 Songs 037: Disappointment

The idea that people could complain that David McAlmont’s vocals during any of the McAlmont and Butler songs were too over the top is one that I’ve always found amusing. Sure, he swoops and soars and chews the aural scenery as much as humanly possible – although at no point does he do the thing that American Idol contestants love so much, when notes stretch to include multiple ups and downs to show off just how well they know their scales; clearly, he’s a show-off in an entirely different way – but listen to what he’s competing with; Bernard Butler was the one in charge during the McAlmont and Butler sessions (The first album, The Sound of…, at least), with the tracks doing their best to become his attempt to fulfill the old Brian Wilson saying about pop songs being teenage symphonies to God; listen to “Disappointment” and try to argue that McAlmont’s vocal isn’t just icing on a cake that doesn’t even necessarily need it – something, of course, that Butler helps to convey with his 90 second instrumental freak-out in the middle of the song, which may be the most interesting point of the proceedings, before McAlmont comes back to chant “Disappointment,” his voice becoming just another instrument in Butler’s grand experiment, as everything seems to build towards something that has always felt like a George Harrison guitar solo that the Beatles forgot to include somewhere at 7:07 (Yes, the track is more than seven minutes long; I’d argue that the “song” portion is actually closer to three minutes, and the rest is Butler going crazy with sound). It’s epic, and overblown, and more than a little self-indulgent, but also completely and utterly Bernard Butler’s creation. Let David McAlmont sing as wildly and as openly as he wants; he’s always going to lose when he’s surrounded by music like the stuff on show here.

Fame, One Step Removed

The weirdest part of catching up on IFC’s Portlandia recently was seeing various parts of my neighborhood show up in this sketch, particularly the much-beloved Waffle Window, complete with genuine Waffle Windower serving Fred and Carrie. I had this great moment of “Oh my God! That’s actually the woman who works at the Waffle Window! I’ve talked to her and now she’s on television!” while watching this.

(For those who listen to Wait, What? – The woman serving at the Waffle Window is the woman who cut Jeff off when he was in the midst of his Waffle frenzy. For all we know, she is the reason he is alive today, and not dead from Waffle Overdose.)

366 Songs 036: We Just Won’t Be Defeated

Yes, yes, I know, I’m late; things haven’t exactly been going to plan recently, shall we say.

There’s been a lot said about the Go! Team, and their mix of found source music and influences; the place where mash-up mentalities meet live music, and then go off and do something less boring instead (A reference that’ll make sense to no-one who isn’t of a particular age and nationality, but for those who saw Why Don’t You…? on British television during the 1980s, you’re welcome; oddly enough, there’s something about the Go! Team sound that reminds me of the theme music for that show, too), and in theory it’s a fine, fine thing. But in practice, there’s a mudiness and laziness to much of the Go! Team’s music, especially on the second album, where songs sound far too alike, and far too busy, for their own good. It impacts even their best songs, and “We Just Won’t Be Defeated” is certainly one of those, but behind the “Double Dutch” vocals and sampled horns and indie jangle, there’s something… tired, perhaps, would be the best way to put it? For a song made up of all these elements that are so alive, so vital, there’s a life missing from the final effort.

It’s something that struck home especially when watching this live performance, which looks like a band barely awake, working to a formula and doing it very professionally, which is great as far as it goes, but – well, music, especially pop music, is something where professionalism is always trumped by passion, and this performance is passionless. You watch everyone at work, and you end up liking the song less, as a result. The Go! Team, when you think of them as this multi-cultural group mixing genre and culture and era into one aural blender and coming out with something to shake your tush to as a result, should be above all fun, and this… isn’t fun at all. It’s just something doing a job very well.

366 Songs 035: Born To Be Blue

Day two of feeling sorry for myself (This is actually not necessarily true; I’m writing ahead, so this is actually coming from the inner darkness that is Friday evening, still), and so another song with “Blue” in the title, this time Ray Charles doing “Born to Be Blue.”

There’s a fascinating romanticism of sadness in pop music, maybe in more than any other artform, I think. Normal service will be resumed soon, of course.

366 Songs 033: Melody Day

What makes Caribou’s “Melody Day” work is that it disguises itself, sounding like something from the 1960s on first listen – The vocals, the two-note piano, the sleigh bells – while being something with the shape of the 1990s, or more contemporary. It’s like a harder Polyphonic Spree, in a way, or a meaner, sleeker Mercury Rev/Chemical Brothers collaboration; there’s a collision of musical cultures that, by the time you get to 1:09, sounds like a collision in the best ways, with drums and vocals and guitar all spiraling out and fighting for your attention. By the time you get to what sounds like a flute, twittering away in the background (It may be a keyboard…?), I’m completely won over.

Also wonderful, but with a very different feeling: The Four Tet (Yes, him again) remix:

366 Songs 032: How We Wrote Elastica Man

Continuing the Mark E. Smith-ness from yesterday, “How We Wrote Elastica Man” – from Elastica’s patchy second album, The Menace – is another messy, yet catchy, song that Smith sounds as if he’s wandered into by mistake, mumbling and moaning in the middle of the band chanting down how to spell their name like some kind of bizarro cheerleading squad (I’ve always loved that the chant doesn’t follow the spelling convention you’d expect: “E! The possibilities are…/L!” and so on). But that seems fitting, considering the sound of this song, distorted but recognizably classic in its arrangement (two guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, vocals) and structure. Like so much of Elastica’s output, there’s something knowingly nostalgic and traditional here, performed with a smirk and off-kilter velocity. For all of the MES vocal fuzz, this song could’ve come from any point from the 1960s forward, which may be why Elastica worked so well during their short lived existence: The music appealed to so many people because it could’ve come from each of their own favorite eras.

366 Songs 031: Inch

If ever there was a song that sounded like something created to confirm old people’s preconceptions and prejudices about music created post-Beatles, it’s almost undoubtedly “Inch,” by Inch (with vocals by Mark E. Smith of the Fall). With a brutal, looped at such a point that it sounds too short (and unfinished as a result), riff and sampled drums that are similarly off-kilter and seem to be fighting with everything else in the track, this is a mess way before the theramin (or keyboards that sound theramin-esque? I’m not sure) comes in for full overload. But nonetheless, it’s great, from the hilariously deconstructive opening (which, really, makes Mark E. Smith sound like a crazy old man) to the overkill of the static/feedback at 2:55; there’s something winningly chaotic and scattered and… well, catchy, about this song, to me. Especially when MES ends up doing his weird sing-along thing right at the end.

“Inch,” then: A mess, but the very best kind of mess imaginable.

366 Songs 030: Maybe I’m Amazed

It’s possible that, if someone said to you, “what do you get when you put Rod Stewart and Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles output together,” your answer would be “an unlistenable, sentimental mess,” and – let’s face it, in most cases, you’d be entirely correct. But then you get this, as the exception that proves the rule.

I’ve always loved “Maybe I’m Amazed,” which I’m pretty sure I first heard as a Carleen Anderson cover (produced by Paul Weller) at some point during the mid-90s. There’s definitely the McCartney sentiment at play, but it’s phrased in such a way – and couched in such wonderful music – that it doesn’t feel treacly or overly saccharine, as so much solo (and Wings-era) McCartney can; instead, it feels genuine and quite lovable. The original version is a great performance – Paul is in belter-mode (Listen to his voice at 0:47!), and the odd arrangement has an intensity and a push there that seems at odds with the vocal at times, but adds to it, at the same time; I especially love that the song seems to finish at 3:01, and then comes back for an instrumental coda that ends with a stompy, jammy mess. There’s a messiness there that really appeals to me, and makes it just ugly enough to feel like something more than a pretty love song.

Recent cover versions have lost this; you hear Jem covering it, and it’s… pretty, but that’s it (Pretty vacant, says John Lydon from thirty years ago, and he’s right). At its best – the McCartney version or the Faces version I started with – this is a weirdly masculine song because of the awkward interplay between the lyrics, the vocal performance and the guitar rock structure that goes off into riff-city when it gets too embarrassed by the honesty of what the words are trying to reveal. Yes, the basic melody means that it can be a pretty song, but I always think that it’s not meant to be; it’s supposed to be something more complex and confused.

366 Songs 029: Who Feels Love?

It’s true; Oasis lost “it,” whatever “it” is, somewhere between (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? and Be Here Now, and as a result, they lost much of their fanbase as well, if you consider just how popular they really were in the aftermath of that former album (If you were living in the U.K. at the time, you’ll remember that they were almost literally everywhere, and that everyone had at least one Oasis song that they loved). But I’m one of the few people who thinks that the failure made them, if not a better band, then at least a more interesting one. Every album after Be Here Now was flawed, true, but it also had more to offer in terms of variety than their big three albums, and arguably the best of what came next was better than what made the band’s reputation.

Take, as exhibit A, “Who Feels Love,” arguably one of the three or so good songs off Standing on The Shoulder of Giants; it’s a medium tempo stab at psychedelia that, on the album, has some nice parts (Who doesn’t love a little bit of backwards guitar, after all? Not to mention the bridge at 3:20, with guitars spiralling off in all directions), but the flanging/flattening of the vocals just kills it dead for me – nonetheless, it’s something different, something that isn’t the Beatles Pub Rock that was the band’s stock in trade before, despite the complete lift from “Dear Prudence” in the chord progression. Much better, though, were the live “acoustic” versions performed by half of the band – tellingly, not vocalist Liam Gallagher – in promotional appearances for the album; it becomes a different type of song, softer and more in synch audibly with the sentiment in the lyrics. Without Liam’s sneer, it’s gentler and feels more honest:

This is, in many ways, an Oasis I would’ve wanted to have seen more of, but it wasn’t to be. The closest we got was the last album, Dig Out Your Soul, which was… quasi-psychedelic, perhaps? But even it didn’t go far enough for me, and the post-split projects have both been far less satisfying than the sum of their parts. Maybe when the inevitable reunion happens…