#Humblebrag

This will never, ever happen again, I’m sure, but here’s the current list of top 10 stories on Techland:

The ones that aren’t blurred out? They’re mine. Somehow, I have four stories in the current top 10, and three of them are the top 3 currently. This is a somewhat boasting post, I know, but hopefully illustrates my point about what a weird week it’s been.

As I said in email to someone earlier this week, this week has been crazy; I’ve had weird (and amusing) passive aggressiveness with PR folk for work things, semi-quasi job offers that I really really wanted to accept but financial and time realities prevented me from doing so, amid personal stuff and a cleanse that has kicked my ass in ways that I would never have imagined having previously done other cleanses that have seemed so much more hardcore (Seriously, on Monday I could’ve killed someone for looking at me the wrong way, I was so pissed off and unhappy). Considering how last week went, it’s possible that January is fascinatingly shaping up to be the month that tries to kill me before I make it through to what is hopefully going to be a much better Rest Of 2012. If what’s happened in the last couple weeks is an omen for how the rest of the year is going to turn out, I might just consider hibernating and starting over in 2013.

366 Songs 012: When I Get Home

I remember, as a kid, listening to the start of this song over and over again – A Hard Day’s Night was something my parents had on vinyl, which also fascinated me as a kid – because it sounded “wrong” for some reason, but not in a bad way. Listening to it again now, I immediately understand what it is that I couldn’t work out back then: it’s the way that the “Woah-oh-” splits for the “aaaaaah” in a way you both expect (the high note) and don’t (the low), and that it’s immediately followed by a repetition, instead of some kind of climax; maybe it’s just me, but the opening feels like it should go higher, and longer or just differently. In what is otherwise a straightforward early-mid period Beatles tune, it’s an unexpected break from the norm.

Talking about the period, we’re still in the period where Beatle lyrics are far less interesting than the music they relax in, and this song is a great example (with the exception of the “please/triviality” rhyme); lots of “come on”s, cliches (“I’m gonna love her till the cows come home,” John? Really?) and misogyny (“I gotta whole lotta things to tell her/When I get home” and “I’ll love her more/Till I walk out that door/Again”), all made infinitely more palatable than it has any right to be by the rawness of the vocals (There’s a sexiness and energy there that still thrills today; I can only imagine what it felt like back then, when this was all new and somewhat alien).

Overall, “When I Get Home” is weirdly… short, perhaps, but maybe I mean weightless or empty; there’s very little here, and every time I hear it, I always feel slightly disappointed not only that it doesn’t live up to that opening – That’s the main hook, and when that part isn’t happening, you’re waiting and hoping it returns throughout the entire thing – but that it’s over so soon and without actually doing anything. It’s like a wasted opportunity more than a complete song, in a lot of ways, but that might be the kind of thing that has to happen when you’re gearing up to create new things.

366 Songs 011: Dan Abnormal

Of all the albums Blur put out, The Great Escape is far from one of my favorites, and of all the songs on The Great Escape, “Dan Abnormal” is far from the best song on there. And yet, it’s been stuck in my head over the last few days, and when I listen to it to try and exorcize it from my mind, I realize that there’s a lot I really do like about it after all.

Despite it’s brittle upbeat sound (It’s the “La la la la”s, I think), this is a weirdly dark, violent song (“I want McNormal and chips/Or I’ll blow you to bits,” anyone?) that gets even stranger when you realize that “Dan Abnormal” is songwriter Damon Albarn’s name as an anagram, and also the psuedonym he’s used when guesting on other people’s records. I’ve never quite worked out if this was a song of self-hatred, or just using a name that was available and writing something around it. But it’s a song that really dislikes its star, unlike so many other Blur songs of the period – although there are more on The Great Escape than other Blur albums – and so there’s been a weird edge to it that makes me wonder if there’s more to it than meets the eye.

366 Songs 010: Some Say

I remember reading, around the time that Ocean’s Eleven came out, David Holmes talk about his inclusion of the Elvis song “A Little Less Conversation” on the soundtrack, and his talking about how perfect the song was, how bizarrely in tune with contemporary tastes it seemed despite being recorded almost forty years earlier; he said something along the lines of “All you have to do is add a breakbeat and you have a ready-made hit waiting to happen” (Something that Junkie XL proved a year or so later, doing pretty much just that and having a number one hit). The same is true, I’ve always thought, of Nina Simone’s “Some Say,” which has surprisingly propulsive horns and an amazingly tight rhythm section – Simone may be a jazz singer, but there was a period in the late ’60s when she folded in both pop and R&B sensibilities to create songs like this, which could fit into any one of those three genres – and an opening that just begs to be sampled and repurposed somewhere.

There’s so much about this song that I adore – Simone’s performance is wonderfully relaxed yet powerful at the same time, and the lyrics are weirdly Summer of Love-ish with a smirk (The timing works; this song appeared on the impossibly good Silk and Soul album, in 1967) – but it’s really about the horn section and the drums for me, if I’m honest; just listen to the way the beat simultaneously is relentless and lazy, almost shuffling over itself, or the bassline the horns provide at 0:27. This song is something that just feels irresistible, the sound of someone enjoying what pop music was turning into at the time (Am I the only person who hears Revolver by the Beatles in this, in places?) and wanting to throw her own ideas into the mix. It’s impossible for me to hear this song and not want to sing along, or at least smile.

366 Songs 009: No Time

Today has been far more packed than I’d anticipated, so instead of writing a real entry – or skipping a day within the first month, much as I was tempted to do – I thought I’d go for a song pun with this Monkees classic that always makes me think that Mickey Dolenz deserved far more credit than he actually got.

Nevermind the furthermore, the plea is self-defense.

366 Songs 008: Bath

After yesterday’s Nilsson cover of Randy Newman, here’s Nilsson showing off not just his pipes, but his songwriting; I’m most fond of early Nilsson, before his voice went to shit and he stopped being more than a little orchestral with his arrangements (Although those arrangements may be more down to the producer of the early records, whose name I am completely blanking on right now), and this is a great example of that Harry – there’s just something so wonderfully happy and present about this song, so wonderfully alive, that I almost feel guilty passing on the explanation that it was apparently written about leaving a brothel. Suddenly, that line about “I’m going home to take my bath, but I’ll be back again” has a different meaning, doesn’t it…?

(Seriously, though; I love the horn arrangement, and the fact that Nilsson just ends up scatting for so much of the song. It’s something that just feels “pop,” but owes as much to soul and jazz, underscoring the weird transformative, magpie nature of this kind of thing.)

Get Ready

I found this photo in my Flickr account from years ago; it’s a very blurry OMAC Lego figure (custom, of course; a gift from Jeff Lester of Wait, What fame unless I’m entirely misremembering) against the trees out my office window, and titled “Get Ready For The World That’s Coming.” I couldn’t resist putting it here, obviously.

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.