366 Songs 047: Funkier Than A Mosquito’s Tweeter

I always wondered what the story was behind Nina Simone’s epic “Funkier Than A Mosquito’s Tweeter,” every time I hear it; it’s a vicious song, clearly one born of anger with the lyrics just filled with invective and some of the best insults ever put to music (I’m particularly partial to “Blowing minds is a thing of the past/You blew your chance, that’s why you never last/You want to be a graduated mother/But in reality, you’re just another brother,” but the very next couplet – “You think you’re slick, but you could stand a lot of greasin’/The things you do ain’t never really pleasin'” – comes very close), which makes me curious who, exactly, the song was written about, and what was the igniting event. We’ve gotten used to diss songs in recent years/decades, I think, with rap in particular making it into enough of a common thing that it feels like a legitimate genre, but this song still feels light years ahead of everything else in this particular school, a song to play people who think that “You’re So Vain” is both mysterious and cutting.

Turns out the song wasn’t written by Simone; it’s actually the work of Alline Bullock, who turns out to be the sister of Tina Turner, the woman behind some classic Ike and Tina stuff, including “Bold Soul Sister” (Maybe my favorite Tina Turner song). The original (?) Ike and Tina version of the song is enjoyable enough, but lacks the viciousness of Simone’s; it seems more generically R’n’B in its arrangement, lacking the unnerving cruelty and detachment that drips from Simone’s voice in her version and the space present in the later arrangement.

Simone’s take on the song is, in fact, funky – Although it took me a couple of listens to really listen to the lyrics and realize that the funk of the title is the nasty funk, the kind that you don’t want to have; the idea of something being “funkier than a mosquito’s tweeter” is actually weirdly and wonderfully dirty, when you think about it – but it’s a different type of funk from Ike and Tina (Nikki Costa, who did another version that’s clearly based on Simone’s, tries for the coolness of Simone but gets it horribly wrong, sounding like a soulless remake and missing the point entirely, especially when the electric guitar comes in and flattens everything around it); it’s restrained for the most part, stripped down to the essentials (bongos, bass, vibes) so that the focus is very clearly on Simone’s voice – and when the drums come in at 2:25, it has such an impact that you sit up and take notice. The original version of this song is fun, rowdy and rude, but when Simone takes it on, it becomes a scalpel of pure spite, reminding the world that she’s something to be reckoned with.

366 Songs 046: Pink Moon

I always feel guilty about the fact that I first heard Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” in a car commercial; there’s something about Drake in general, and “Pink Moon” in particular that that feels like heresy, as if just by that process of discovery, I’ve somehow cheapened the music and Drake’s tortured experience in life. This is what’ll happen to future mes, when Elliott Smith is used to advertise sneakers and they hear “Needle In The Hay” for the first time. There’s a lot to connect Drake and Smith, even beyond the tortured artist stereotype; a sensitivity and serenity to their music, a preference for hushed vocals and finger-picked acoustic guitars… Smith is, in many ways, the more openly self-loathing descendant of Drake’s, but there’s a warmth to Drake that Smith sometimes misses.

(A lot of that warmth, I think, comes from Drake’s voice, which is weirdly charming in its breathiness here, and the almost comforting nature of the song, which is simple and open and has the type of chord structure that makes it feel more relaxing than others, for some reason.)

Having said all of that, my favorite version of “Pink Moon” isn’t the original; it’s Beck’s cover from a few years back, which adds a melancholy – again, I’m tempted to say that’s a vocal thing as well – to the original, a sadness and resignation that gives the entire song a strangely more affecting mood.
Clearly, I just like the sad songs.

“I Like To Do Just Like The Rest”

I’m not quite sure just why this week has proven to be so exhausting, but it sadly has, hence the relative silence here. While I’m recovering and feeling a little scared about the backlog of songs I have to write about, have some Cornershop doing Bob Dylan and making it into a lovely little pop song:

366 Songs 045: Let Forever Be

Another day that feels weirdly overwhelming for reasons I can’t explain – although there was an upside of seeing a friend I haven’t seen in a long, long time – and so, a song that (as much as I love it) feels as frantic as my head right now. It’s the drum beat, which feels like it’s come from some awesome jazz record in the past, and the way it doesn’t quite go with the hum of the rest of the song. Never mind all of Noel Gallagher’s Beatles-esque stylings and lyrics – This is definitely a lesser cousin to “Setting Sun” in that regard – because “Let Forever Be” is really all about the aural mismatch in the music, and the way that it sounds like the most pop dream you’ve never had.

366 Songs 044: My Funny Valentine

So, this is what a standard sounds like:

‘Nuff said, surely? (My favorite of the versions on show here is most likely the Sinatra, which somehow manages to be both melancholy and swinging. I think there’s a depth to the vocal performance that’s at odds with the musical arrangement, but in a way that somehow works, if that makes sense…)

Writing needs space, time to develop and breathe and turn into something that’s worth reading and not just verbal sludge pouring forth from your fingers and keyboard. The problem with that, of course, is that sometimes your life becomes too much everything and not enough space.

366 Songs 043: Valentine’s Day

Ruth is one of those bands that you remember, but don’t remember anything about; as far as I do remember, this was the closest thing they ever had to a hit, but even then this was really a near-miss that graced a lot of radio and TV play but was pretty much ignored by the Great British Public, who hadn’t really come around to the idea of overly-produced pop that’s pretty much saved from the disaster of mediocrity by the Brian May-esque guitar solo that comes in at 1:50 from out of nowhere. But for me, this song isn’t about Valentine’s Day or the limitations of power pop but instead, a trip to London in the final year of my bachelor’s degree at art school, sleeping on a friend’s floor and thinking way too much about pop music, leafing through the CDs that he’d been given for free and discovering all these bands that I never would’ve heard of otherwise. Ruth was one of those, but a lesser one; I remember finding things on that trip that would stay with me for years afterwards, dubbed onto blank tapes until I could finally manage to track down and buy them for myself. Weird memories of the world opening up and wandering home along streets that I one day thought I might live in, listening to songs on headphones that were falling apart, trying to stitch new sounds and ideas together with every step.

366 Songs 042: Get Some Sleep, Tiger (Plaid Remix)

Because it’s Sunday, and because I mentioned Red Snapper yesterday, and because it’s been a rough few days, and so on and so on… It’s time to “Get Some Sleep, Tiger.” In particular, this Plaid remix of said track, which makes the awesome jazziness of the original and makes it just a little weirder, taking it from the “theme song for the best spy movie you’ve never seen” to something almost postrock…

Normal service will be resumed sooner rather than later.

366 Songs 041: It’s Not The Spotlight

I first saw Beth Orton back when she was singing with Red Snapper, way back in the mid 1990s, and I remember very, very clearly leaving the venue and she was standing outside, leaning against a car smoking and me just completely being smitten by her in that moment, as random as that may sound. It was that memory, that smittenness, that led me to pick up her first single and album and become as equally – if not more – smitten with her folk revival sound than the way she looked post-gig, grumpy and trying to ignore the crowds wandering past her in a cold Glasgow alleyway. It’s not that she was doing anything particularly special or original, but just the sound of her voice and simplicity of her arrangements that sounded especially fresh in the dying days of Britpop. “It’s Not The Spotlight” shows off what I liked best about her output at that time – the covers that stripped back brassier pop tunes and remade them as something quieter and more beautiful. Even now, years after I’ve pretty much stopped paying attention to her career that closely, things like this still send slight chills up and down my spine.

366 Songs 040: To Binge

It’s possible that there’s a song somewhere in the world of music that more easily and quickly evokes the idea of a damaged relationship trying to be repaired than Gorillaz’ “To Binge” (from Plastic Beach, which may or may not be the final “proper” Gorillaz album depending on what rumors you care to believe), but if there is, I doubt it has a moment that tugs the heartstrings as much as when Damon Albarn sings “But I just have to tell you that I/Love you so much these days/I just have to tell you that I/Love you so much these days/It’s true.”

Plastic Beach is a weird album, and “To Binge” a standout song from it because it is so much more fragile than everything that surrounds it, and so much more… traditional, I guess; the song structure is pretty much a basic duet, with very basic accompaniment, which helps make its case as something more honest than the songs it hides between, more heartfelt. Who can listen to this and not want for everything to end up okay for Albarn and Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano and their mini drama implied in this four minute song?