“The Germans Deserved Great Credit For Their Moral Seriousness”

The delicatessen had three or four tables at which people could sit, purchase a cup of coffee, and read out-of-date Continental newspapers. There was always a copy of Le Monde and Corriere della Sera, and sometimes Spiegel, which Isabel found interesting because of its habit of publishing articles about the Second World War and German guilt. It was important to remember, and perhaps some Germans felt that they could never forget, but would there be a point at which those awful images of the past could be put away? Not if we want to avoid a repetition, said some, and the Germans took this very seriously, while others perhaps preferred to forget. The Germans deserved great credit for their moral seriousness, which is why Isabel liked them so much. Anyone – any people – was capable of doing what they did in their historical moment of madness – and their goodness lay in the fact that they later faced up to what they had done. Did the Turks go over their history with a moral fine-tooth comb? She was not aware of it, if they did, and nobody seems to mention the genocide of the Armenians – an atrocity which was virtually within living memory – except the Armenians, of course.

And the Belgians, she suddenly remembered, who had passed a resolution in their Senate only a few years previously noting what had happened in Armenia. Some had said that was all very well, but then what about what Leopold did in the Congo? And were there not islanders, somewhere in the Pacific, whose ancestors stood accused of eating – yes, eating the original inhabitants of the lands they occupied? Most unfortunate. And then there were the British who behaved extremely badly in so many parts of the world. There was the woeful story of the extinction of the Tasmanian aboriginals and so many instances of cruelty and theft under the bright protection of the Union Jack. When would British history books face up to the appalling British contribution to slavery, which involved the Arabs, too, and numerous Africans (who were not just on the receiving end)? We were all as bad as one another, but at some point we had to overlook that fact, or at least not make too much of it. History, it seemed, could so quickly become a matter of mutual accusation and recrimination, an infinite regress of cruelty and oppression, unless forgetfulness or forgiveness intervened.

– Alexander McCall Smith, Friends, Lovers, Chocolate.

366 Songs 024: As Serious As Your Life


It’s another odd week; it feels as if January has just been odd weeks, each one with its own flavor of weirdness, either bemusing, confusing or patently overwhelming, so why should this one be any different, right? This particular week, so far, has been stuttering, stopping and starting in terms of energy and productivity, so it’s no surprise that I’ve had this song in my head for the last couple of days. Well… “song” feels like the wrong thing to write, in a way, because “song” for me feels as if it should have lyrics and singing, so… this is a tune, I guess? It’s the first Four Tet track proper that I listened to after countless times hearing a Four Tet remix of someone else’s music and thinking to myself, this is great, I should try and trac down more of this and utterly failing in my own plan. And, as an introduction to everything I like about Four Tet, it’s pretty much perfect; the mix of the organic and the digital sounds, the feel of an updated jazz sound – the simplicity of that guitar riff – that also somehow feels like some kind of comedown track you’d hear at the end of a Chemical Brothers album or something similar (especially at 1:27 in this video, where the bass and drums are suddenly looped much tighter, and become this wall of sound, or at 2:20, when the guitar appears again, reversed). But it also has the emptiness that makes me wish that Four Tet tracks had more of the emotionality and character of the tracks he’s remixed for other people; by the end of the track, you’re ready for it to be done, if that makes sense – The cleverness and playfulness has ceased to be a novelty, and you’re left wanting it to make one more evolution and turn into something that’s ultimately more interesting.

366 Songs 023: Gospel With No Lord


Even if “Gossip With No Lord” wasn’t a catchy song that makes you want to (a) shake your ass, (b) sing along or (c) smile wryly (delete as applicable), there are two parts of it that always, without fail, catch my ear and make me love the song for its slyness and self-awareness. Both parts are essentially variations on the same joke – failing to live up to the listener’s expectation of what’s coming next, in such a way that manages to make said expectations seem ridiculous and comedic – but there’s a glee and joy in the subversion as Camille does it that feels infectious and unrehearsed no matter how many times you listen to it, nonetheless. For a song that celebrates people, as opposed to higher powers that may or may not exist depending on your viewpoint, there’s something wonderfully fitting about that, I think.

366 Songs 022: See You in Heaven


Out of all the unreleased-but-leaked material that’s appeared since Elliott Smith’s death, “See You in Heaven” may be one of my favorites, but also one of the most frustrating. Unlike so much of his work, there’s something undeniably uplifting about the instrumental – And, because there are sleigh bells so high in the mix, something so Christmassy, to me at least – and there’s a dynamism to the whole thing that really appeals to me, feeling more like an off-cut from Figure 8 than the other material that he was working on before his death (I think that From A Basement On The Hill is a great album, and has some of my favorite production and arrangements of any of his work, but this just feels different, somehow). It’s unfinished nature makes it feel like a song that archaeologists can use to pick through and find the bones of his songwriting technique, to make a strange and uncomfortable metaphor; the spaces left behind are open to suspect and supposition about what could’ve gone there, what’s missing from it, and why certain choices were made. There are parts that feel very… undone (The building tension from 0:56 to 1:23 almost works, but it’s missing something), and parts that feel revelatory, things that are just lovely but you can tell would’ve been hidden more in a final version (The way the music just tumbles and lurches into the bride at 2:53, for example), and therein lies the frustration, because we’ll never know what the song was “supposed” to sound like. There is, according to Elliott Smith legend, a “finished” version of this song, with lyrics and a more completed arrangement with more overdubs, that exists somewhere, but it’s never been leaked and at this point, more than half a decade after his death, it probably never will. That’s maybe a good thing, ultimately; the unfinished nature of the “See You in Heaven” that we have allows the song to be hopeful and optimistic to those who want it to sound like that, and everything that’s not there can be created by our imaginations, giving us one last chance to interact with Smith and his weird, wonderful way of songwriting.

366 Songs 021: Move Over


Mover is one of those British bands that came and went at the same time as Britpop, but somehow seems to happen outside of it somehow, even though they fit so many criteria for inclusion (The name! The five-twentysomething-males line up! The retro appeal!); they put out two albums (Well, one in the UK; like menswear, the second was a Japan-only release, I seem to remember), and had a handful of singles with great art direction and perfectly agreeable songs, but the first two singles, “Kick The Beam” and “Move Over” was as good as they got; raucous, with a sound that felt as if they preferred the earlier Beatles to anything that’d come after Rubber Soul. There’s an R&B influence (Not modern R’n’B, but the 1950s/1960s stuff) to their sound, and that – along with the basic arrangements of their music and the female backing vocals – was probably what knocked them out of Britpop inclusion for most. But nonetheless, “Move Over” has one of the best openings to any single of the era, with the spiky riff, drums that collapse over themselves to get started and the great couplet “In the beginning, there was the word/And He said unto you, ‘Get On Your Feet'” (That space is taken in a later verse with the fun “Soon to be making all the right connections/Woman is good, man is the beast”), signs that what you’re listening to has no greater aim than making you get out of your seat and shake your butt a little. It’s a song that was made be heard live, to be sung along with (That chorus!), and to make Mover into, if not superstars, then something more popular than they actually became.

The other week, I was watching something on PBS and saw the lead singer of the band, Sam Hazeldine, in a lead role in the drama; some Googling and I discovered that he’d finally found fame as an actor, which made me as happy as it did surprised; he has some charisma, but he also has one of those voices that I’d always hoped would keep singing, putting out random things you’d find by accident that sounded permanently out of time and wonderfully timeless. Maybe one day, Mover will end up living again, who knows?

366 Songs 020: Before My Heart Attacks


“Before My Heart Attacks” has a very particular meaning for me, as a song; I remember vividly listening to this song over and over during one Christmas break when I was in art school, back home with my parents and missing my girlfriend even though everything was up in the air about us (We broke up pretty soon after I went back to school, and I remember her telling me that she’d been thinking about how we weren’t working out during this same break, something that I find both funny and sad; the mental image of me sitting at home, pining, while she’s literally on the other side of the country thinking, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I can do better”), and the melancholy and bewilderness of this song seemed to fit my mood even before the last line about “waitin’ on your letter” swung in, with the strings dipping to underscore the end of the song.

It’s a pretty song, saved from potential tweeness (With lyrics like “Garbage man, oh garbage man/Why won’t you leave the street/How can this street/possibly excrete/this much trash seven days a week?” you can possibly see my concerns about tweeness) almost entirely by the arrangement, with the glorious swooping strings backing the plucked guitar and making the whole thing feel at once intimate and epic, the way that relationships do when you’re in the middle of them and things seem to be going wrong. It’s a song that makes you think that the writer, Jason Falkner (ex of Jellyfish, although that may mean little to you; it’s the entire reason I bought the album this was from – Presents Author Unknown – without listening to it, though), is almost there, and has greatness just waiting for him, but if that’s the case, he pretty much kept that greatness under wraps; “Before My Heart Attacks” and another song from the same album, “I Go Astray,” were pretty much as good as he ever got, if you ask me.

366 Songs 019: Half A Song


Because of my mental exhaustion, I figured that “Half A Song” felt appropriate today; it’s an unfinished demo from Damon Albarn’s Democrazy, a self-released collection of demos (One of which later became “Dirty Harry,” a Gorillaz single from Demon Days), but despite the fact that it’s more of a sketch than a “song” in many ways, it’s one of the most beautiful things that Albarn has done. That he’s gifted in melancholic melody shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s heard enough Blur or Gorillaz, but the sadness and fragility in this song comes as much from the background vocals that come in at 0:33, shy in a lot of ways but present to give support to the lead vocal in their own shaky way and all the more lovable and believable for that.

I go back and forth about whether or not I’d want Albarn to return to this song and come up with “the other half”; I’m curious to hear what a finished version would sound like, but I also worry that what makes his version so enjoyable would disappear in a version that sounds more produced and complete. Maybe it’s the ghost of the missing half that I really like, in this version. Maybe some things should stay incomplete.

Today Is The Greatest Day I’ve Ever Had (Note: Sarcasm As Well As Smashing Pumpkins Reference)

It’s one of those days, the ones where everything just seems to continue happening even though you’re hoping that there’ll be some time soon to catch your breath; from waking up to the sound of an alarm that water was coming in the basement to everything that’s followed (Mostly related to the basement flooding, which has pretty much taken up the entire day and my brain throughout), today feels like a month of stress wrapped up into one 11-hour package (Has it really only been 11 hours since I woke up? Jeez). This can only be a karmic reaction for being so relaxed during a massage yesterday that I fell asleep; this’ll teach me for thinking that my embarrassment over falling asleep during a blooming* massage was karmic payback enough.

(* – self-censorship for both comic effect and whatever sensitive souls may be reading this.)

366 Songs 018: The Citizens’ Band

Despite being the “hidden track,” I’ve always been fairly convinced that “The Citizens’ Band” is one of the best songs, if not the best song, on the Super Furry Animals’ third album, Guerrilla; for one thing, it’s one of the most straightforward songs in terms of structure and production (Guerrilla felt, at times, like a reaction to the autotuning and increasing manipulation of pop music post-recording that was beginning to creep into the top 40 at the time it was released, and as a result feels at times more sterile and less warm than their other albums; I don’t know how much of that is actually there, and how much is my reading of it, mind you), and for another, lyrically it feels personal and true in a way that few other songs do, if that makes sense.

There’s a 1970s vibe to the song, for me; not just in the high notes – listen as Gruff strains at the end of the song, or during the “We all need”s in the chorus – but the flute and the shuffling drums that feel lethargic in the same way that Ringo often did. There’s something about the slightly stoned feel of the song that reminds me of “Hometown Unicorn,” the band’s first single, in a good way; it could be a song from that same era, with the slightly scruffy feel to the whole thing, the guitars simultaneously sounding like glam rock and sludge, and the most hilarious handclaps in pop music (Seriously, if you listen close, there’s just one clap every now and again, a very steady, slow pattern).

Lyrically, it feels like two songs in a way; the very specific joke about writing a song in CB radio slang (“I’m a breaker that breaks/And my handle is Goblin”) and the far more universal longing when we get to the chorus, sung with more passion – and, perhaps tellingly, more voices – as we get “Me and you/So many ways to communicate,” a lyric that always sticks in my head as weirdly and wonderfully important in ways that I can feel but not necessarily understand, but something that feels at the center of my world as I end up writing on the internet about social media for a living. So many ways to communicate, indeed; if only I could write that in the harmonies and emphasis that it deserves, that I feel every time I listen to the song.

366 Songs 017: So You Want To Be A Rock and Roll Star

The thing that always surprises me about “So You Want To Be A Rock and Roll Star” – at least, the original Byrds version – is the trumpet(?) that goes through the whole thing, pretty much independent of, or at odds with, the main part of the song (with appropriately Byrdsian jangly guitar, which had been in place since “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better,” way back when, and the odd vocal that sounds so reminiscent of Harry Nilsson in the way it’s been produced). Like Love back then(I’m thinking specifically about the “Alone Again Or” use of brass, which sounds like a Mariachi band wandered into the studio while they were recording the song), there’s an almost willful counterintuitiveness about the way the brass appears here, avoiding the kind of Beatles-esque arrangement that was so prevalent in pop music at the time for something that feels more… jazzy, perhaps? But utterly random, too, not supporting (or supported by) anything around it, a thumbed nose to whatever musical convention that was going on and attempt to auralize the lyrical message of the song.