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…

“I Am Just As Bad As Everyone Else”

The crossword would start the day, and then she would glance at the new itself, trying to avoid the salacious court cases which seemed to take up more and more newspaper columns. There was such an obsession with human weakness and failing; with the tragedies of peoples’ lives; with the banal affairs of actors and singers. You had to be aware of human weakness, of course, because it simply was, but to revel in it seemed to her to be voyeurism, or even a form of moralistic tale telling. And yet, she thought, do I not read these things myself? I do. I am just as bad as everybody else, drawn to these scandals. She smiled ruefully, noticing the heading: MINISTER’S SHAME ROCKS PARISH. Of course she would read that, as everybody else would, although she knew that behind the story was a personal tragedy, and all the embarrassment that goes with that.

– Alexander McCall Smith, The Sunday Philosophy Club.

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.

No-One’s Listening

There’s something to be said for blogging in anonymity, like this; I’m so aware of “the audience” (or the potential audience, or the need for an audience) in my work that it makes me far too self-aware at times, too self-censoring or second guessing whatever I’d initially wanted to say – even if all I really wanted to say was oh please I have to do x number of posts still and there’s nothing to write about oh god – and, ultimately, that’s a weirdly depressing thing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there’s an artistic muse to my blogging that must be followed or else, woe, disaster; I’m too much a believer in Bill Drummond’s idea of pop and the requirement of an audience for that, if nothing else, and too much a cynic and pessimist when it comes to whatever artistic value I can offer the world with my writing. But there comes a point, eventually, when you start to write what people expect or what you think they want with so little of yourself or your interests in there that it feels not just like “work,” but like the worst, shittiest work imaginable, and that’s never fun.

Here, however… I genuinely don’t know if anyone is reading this, because I haven’t really told anyone about this site yet; I made a passing reference to it on the old iamgraememcmillan site, but that’s it. I haven’t tweeted about it, or linked it on Facebook or wherever. I should, I know that, because I’m selfish and want an audience to hang on my every word and all that, but for now, I’m writing this honestly thinking that no-one is going to read it. And while part of me thinks that that’s very self-indulgent, I think that’s good, in a way; I think we all need to remember to be a little self-indulgent sometimes, if we can keep it in perspective. And, after all, isn’t that what a blog is supposed to be, just a little?

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.

Walter

This is a garage door here in Portland, from December 23 last year. Walter has seen fit to scrawl his name not just the time you see here, but another time to the right of this, and the owners have just masking taped a note between the two “Walter”s, saying “Thanks Walter… Thanks a lot.”

I love that, that the response is clearly exasperated, but also somehow meant to be funny to other people.

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.

 

366 Songs 001: This Will Be Our Year

Maybe it’s just me, but this feels like an appropriate song for New Year’s Day, especially with the touch of… bitterness, perhaps? pessimism, or sadness, maybe, that follows the title (“This will be our year/Took a long time to come,” remember). I first heard this song in the dying days of Britpop was Menswear covered it as b-side for their second last single, and it sounded like pop music was supposed to in some weird way; ramshackle, joyous and with harmonies and piano and its heart on its sleeve. Years later, even though I’ve since discovered the Zombies and the joys of Odessey and Oracle, the album that the song first appeared on, the Menswear version is still my favorite version of the song; there’s a happiness to it that feels… more genuine, perhaps, less precious, than even the original to me, with its Brian May-esque guitars and the feeling that they’re rushing the song, like they just have to get it out (It helps that it ends with someone saying “Yowza!” for no immediately apparent reason. Don’t ask me why, but it does).

(Yes, I know that they get the lyrics wrong a couple of times, but I don’t care.)

There are numerous touches in the song that mean that it’s no surprise that I’d be totally sucked in: the descending chords at the start (especially when done on the piano), lyrics about holding hands – I don’t know why that always gets to me, but it does – and the importance of harmony vocals. It’s a song that’s been covered a ridiculous number of times, moreso as the Zombies’ cultural cache (deservedly) grows, but almost every version brings a smile to my lips no matter how terrible.

Here’s the original version, complete with the awesome horn arrangement that’s missing from a lot of stereo mixes of the album (including the “official” album as it’s available today, I think). This is more gentle, more graceful than the Menswear version, and likely more beatutiful:

Here’s hoping that this will be our year. After all, if it is, it has taken a long to come.