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…

366 Songs 028: Setting Sun

I found out, earlier this week, that the remaining members of the Beatles had threatened the Chemical Brothers with legal action over “Setting Sun”‘ s similarity to “Tomorrow Never Knows” from Revolver, only for Sony to hire various musical experts to “prove” that the two songs were different enough so as not to be legally actionable. There’s something amusing about that, in no small part because “Setting Sun” pretty much is “Tomorrow Never Knows,” or at least the younger, angrier brother of that song; I remember when the song was new, and DJs would mix the two together, and all of us Britpop fans would nod our heads and go “yes, the Beatles really did invent everything” as if that was somehow gospel fact as opposed to Brit-centric nonsense.

“Setting Sun,” though, felt like a breakthrough for the Chemical Brothers at the time, at least for me. It wasn’t their first track with a vocalist – Tim Burgess and the wonderful Beth Orton had been on the first album, Exit Planet Dust – but it was their first track that felt as if it was “a song,” with a beginning, middle and end, and enough give and take within it to work as a club track, too. There’s an organicness to “Setting Sun,” the structure of it if not the way it sounds, electronically screaming at you, that wasn’t present in their earlier work, and a playfulness, too; it’s something that works in more locations than just the dancefloor, and a sign of where they’d go on Dig Your Own Hole, the album that followed (and ended up becoming a home to this track).

But back to the Beatles; it’s not just any similarity to “Tomorrow Never Knows” and Noel Gallagher’s vocals that remind the listener of the Fab Four; the drums, if you listen to them as a loop and then separate that loop in your head to the singular beat that is looped, sounds like something Ringo would play (It actually really reminds me of his infamous “Strawberry Fields Forever” drum riff), and the… more choral vocals… (which isn’t the right way to put it, but the vocals that are sampled and used as music as opposed to Gallagher’s lead vocal) are reminiscent of the mythical “Tomorrow Never Knows” that was never made but John Lennon had imagined, with the monk chanting on the top of a hill providing the main musical accompaniment.

It’s odd to hear Noel Gallagher perform this song on his own, and give it – well, a melody, which the original purposefully doesn’t have; it becomes a gentler song, something more melancholy, which is odd to imagine. The “Setting Sun” on Dig Your Own Hole is a battle song, a call to arms for a culture war as much as “Tomorrow Never Knows” was, way back when. I love this song, as much for what it implies and brings to memory as much as what it actually is, but those two things feel very linked: It’s about being young and out of control and now, more than a decade later, it’s become that song for me in an entirely different direction.

366 Songs 027: Underground

Someone – I can’t remember who, but I suspect it may have been the girlfriend I had when Ben Folds Five, the debut album, came out – once called “Underground” a song that sounded like it should’ve been done by the Muppets, and I completely understand where they’re coming from; there’s a… jauntiness, might be a good way of putting it, or a particular perkiness to the song that feels like it should be coming from a bunch of felt-covered creatures who can open their mouths to 90 degree angles. To be honest, that’s one of the selling points of the song for me, this unstoppable enthusiasm and energy that just bowls you over and dares you not to want to sing along, even before you’ve realized that the lyrics are making fun of what, even in the late ’90s when this song came out, was called “alternative culture” (My favorite lyric may be the “It’s industrial!/So work it underground” couplet, which is punctuated by one weak metal clink and sung in high harmonies, so amazingly non-industrial and at odds with the idea of what that music wanted to be).

Considering BF5 was always dominated by the eponymous Mr. Folds – and somewhat understandably; his name was in the band’s (joke) name, and he wrote or co-wrote almost all of their material, as well as being lead singer and having his piano right up there in the mix at all times – it’s worth singing the praises of Robert Sledge and Darren Jesse, the other members of the band. They’re the ones who make “Underground” work, in a weird way; not just in their harmony/backing vocals, but with the bass and drums, grounding the song and giving the piano some weight as well as something to play off’ve. There are live versions from Ben Folds’ solo career of this song, and it’s not just that something’s missing, it’s that everything feels missing; for all the dazzle of Folds’ performance – and it is, genuinely dazzling; this was the band’s first single, and it sounded so fresh and different on the radio because it was the mid-90s! Who sounded like that then? – the song belongs to Sledge and Jesse; they may not have provided all of the Muppet-iness to the final product, but they came up with enough power to take the song beyond a one-hit-wonder thing that you smile at and never need to hear ever again.

“Harmony is The Word, Donnie!”

Jack Kirby / DC Comics

Kirby does synaesthesia, from Forever People #2. There’s something wonderfully compelling about an old square’s idea of being “turned on” to the flower people, especially when he’s doing it years after the peak of the flower children movement. I’m not being sarcastic, I should add; I think I like Kirby’s take on psychedelia more than I like the “real thing” in many ways – there’s a purity of intent to it that was very quickly vanquished from the genuine article. Kirby’s Forever People must have seemed out of touch when it appeared in 1971, as opposed to the more charming “out of time” quality that it has now, because it was too close to what it was writing about, but not close enough to be concurrent with the movement… But, looking back now, all I can really think is that I wish that Kirby’s version of the Age of Aquarius had come to pass, somehow.

366 Songs 026: Yen on A Carousel

I’m a big fan of the soundtracks to the various Ocean’s (Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen) movies, in large part because I was a big fan of David Holmes even before he started doing movie scores and mixes for Steven Soderbergh. But it helps that there’s a particular aesthetic that Holmes’ scores for the movies – Something poppy, but also slightly dirty (aurally, I mean, not lyrically or suggestively in any way); something that sounds like something that would come out of the late ’60s or early ’70s, and has a vaguely R&B sensibility to it – that very much lines up with what I like listening to personally. That said, one YouTube comment on a fan-made video for “Yen on A Carousel” from Ocean’s Twelve just blew my mind by pointing out how much the tune owes to the Beatles’ “Taxman” (which itself owes more than a little to the theme to the 1960s’ Batman TV show). Seriously, just listen to the bassline of this:

What’s particularly frustrating about this is that I’d never realized it before; I’d noticed that some of the “original” tracks from Holmes’ Out of Sight soundtrack are essentially versions of Isley Brothers songs that also appear on the soundtrack but never that a song from my favorite Beatles album so prominently “influenced” one of my favorite tracks from the Twelve soundtrack. Of course, now that I’ve been told, it’s all I can hear. Soon, the two will be joined in my head, and hearing one will immediately bring to mind the other, no matter what the circumstances. Such are the connections my brain makes, and never lets go of.

366 Songs 025: Daybreaker/Daybreaker (Four Tet Remix)

Is it possible to take a mental health day from a blogging deadline that you’ve set for yourself? Probably not, but that’s what I’m doing today, and instead leaving you with this example of a Four Tet remix significantly improving a song, as referenced yesterday: Beth Orton’s Daybreaker, which goes from a weird song with a strange arrangement that sounds entirely out of place with the vocal, and weirdly influenced by bad acid house music of the 1980s, to something that sounds much more enjoyable and organic to my ears.

It might be something as basic as the added echo and acoustic guitar that ground the Four Tet version for me, but, yeah… the second version is almost unimaginably better, if you ask me.