366 Songs 015: Stay

Bernard Butler’s “Stay” is exactly the song that all of his fans wanted him to put out as his first solo record, I suspect, and also exactly the song that everyone who liked to make fun of his grandiose production were probably expecting and sharpening their barbs for in anticipation. This is in no way a subtle song although, at its heart, it is; if you can get beyond the production and arrangement, this is a very gentle, quiet thing deep down. The lyrics, especially the blunt, short chorus (“Don’t go/Stay/This time” – That’s really it, and I kind of love it for how unaffected and un-clever, if that makes sense, it is), feel like they belong to something much quieter and more intimate, and even Butler’s delivery of the lines feel more restrained than everything surrounding his voice (Although this was the first thing he’d ever released as a solo artist, singing as well as performing on guitar, and possibly the first full song lyric he’d written alone as well, so maybe there are more reasons for his restrained vocal than lyrical intent).

But the music… The song just builds wonderfully, from strummed acoustic guitar to the slowly added other instruments (piano, drums, bass, unnecessary-but-why-not wind sound effects), and then at the end of the first chorus, the electric guitar fading in with feedback that feels both out of place and just wonderfully necessary in a way that turns the song on instead of it just existing. The way that the electric guitar feels as if it’s the emotion to the whole thing, this anguish that he can’t quite get out any other way (The way it just attacks the bridge still makes me wish I knew how to play guitar, knew how to express myself in that way, this immediate wonderful difficult way). By the time the song is finishing, it’s all about the electric guitar, that’s become the purpose of the song, explaining what the song is and what it’s about much more than the vocal. Considering Butler’s past in Suede, where it felt at times he was fighting with singer Brett Anderson for the soul of the song (Just listen to “Stay Together” or “The Asphalt World” and you’ll hear what I mean), it seemed fitting and thrilling and it feels the same even now, more than a decade later.

This isn’t a great song, but it is a great performance, if that makes sense; other people could try to do this track but, because they wouldn’t have that guitar in there, it wouldn’t measure up. “Stay” might have been the first song that proved that Bernard Butler could write an entire song himself and could carry a tune if he had to, but it’s also a song that proved once and for all that he’s definitely at his best as a guitarist.

366 Songs 014: We Will Rock You

When I was a kid, there was always one tape that you count depend on being played during any lengthy family road trip: Queen’s Greatest Hits. I’m not sure quite why or how, to be honest, my family somehow decided without any discussion that that cassette was magically acceptable to everyone in the family, but it was, and we’d all listen and sing along happily whenever it was played (As opposed to the reaction when, say, Huey Lewis and The News – my father’s favorite – was suggested).

Listening to “We Will Rock You” now is a strange exercise, because the song itself is just covered in a layer of nostalgia that almost disguises what you actually hear. But what’s there is kind of fascinating, if only to consider how it became a hit, and a hit that everyone likes. Consider the structure of the song, which isn’t the traditional verse/chorus/verse as much as a chant that, all of a sudden, Brian May comes along and just ends with a ridiculously awesome guitar solo (Is Brian May “officially” awesome again yet? If not, he should be; he’s a really great guitarist). I mean… there’re no instruments in this song until almost ninety seconds into it, and then there’s just this guitarist going nuts, and then it’s just… over. This is pretty much a weird song, the kind of thing that is normally hidden away on an album for the hardcore fans only, and yet it magically became a thing and everyone knows it. Sometimes, I think that over familiarity makes us forget how truly strange that really is.

366 Songs 013: Nine In The Afternoon

Being an old man, Panic! At The Disco’s first album pretty much passed me by without any trace; I knew the band existed, but always got them mixed up with My Chemical Romance for some reason, both bands written off as something approaching emogothpop by kids with too much money and romance for gloom (Yes, I know this is potentially unfair; sorry to those who are disappointed). But there was a mention on a website or a magazine or something prior to the band’s second album that essentially said “They’ve clearly been listening to a lot of Beatles and trying to recreate Sgt. Pepper’s,” which is the kind of thing that almost guarantees that I’ll check something out from morbid curiosity if nothing else. This song – “Nine In The Afternoon” – was the first single (and second track) on that second album, Pretty. Odd., and I remember hearing it and thinking “Oh, they’re not trying to be the Beatles, they’re trying to be Jellyfish.”

That sounds like a diss, but it shouldn’t; I love Jellyfish and their own retro sound, but there’s nothing in “Nine In The Afternoon” that really approaches either the expansive nature of, or the exploration at the heart of, their music; it’s all about nostalgia and an attempt to return to times past. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – A lot of my favorite bands, Jellyfish included, were very much concerned with the same thing – but it requires some level of songwriting beyond passable, and a dedication to production and aural fidelity, to make things sound like more than just pastiche. And this song… doesn’t really do that. This is “psychedelia” by numbers, with a song that’s not strong enough to really carry its weight as anything more. It’s enjoyable and relatively singalong, and yes, they’ve stolen a horn arrangement that feels like it should’ve come from Pepper’s, but it feels like ELO or something, an “almost-but-not-quite” running through the entire thing like a stick of rock.

Almost the entire album is like this, sadly; some kind of quasi-Rutles parody that’s agreeable but not memorable. There’s one song that I really did like off the album, although it’s barely a full song at all; the opener, “We’re So Starving” doesn’t try to sound like someone’s attempt to recreate 1967, is playful and self-aware, and altogether a lot of fun. If the entire album had sounded like that, everything would have been better.


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.)