366 Songs 020: Before My Heart Attacks

“Before My Heart Attacks” has a very particular meaning for me, as a song; I remember vividly listening to this song over and over during one Christmas break when I was in art school, back home with my parents and missing my girlfriend even though everything was up in the air about us (We broke up pretty soon after I went back to school, and I remember her telling me that she’d been thinking about how we weren’t working out during this same break, something that I find both funny and sad; the mental image of me sitting at home, pining, while she’s literally on the other side of the country thinking, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I can do better”), and the melancholy and bewilderness of this song seemed to fit my mood even before the last line about “waitin’ on your letter” swung in, with the strings dipping to underscore the end of the song.

It’s a pretty song, saved from potential tweeness (With lyrics like “Garbage man, oh garbage man/Why won’t you leave the street/How can this street/possibly excrete/this much trash seven days a week?” you can possibly see my concerns about tweeness) almost entirely by the arrangement, with the glorious swooping strings backing the plucked guitar and making the whole thing feel at once intimate and epic, the way that relationships do when you’re in the middle of them and things seem to be going wrong. It’s a song that makes you think that the writer, Jason Falkner (ex of Jellyfish, although that may mean little to you; it’s the entire reason I bought the album this was from – Presents Author Unknown – without listening to it, though), is almost there, and has greatness just waiting for him, but if that’s the case, he pretty much kept that greatness under wraps; “Before My Heart Attacks” and another song from the same album, “I Go Astray,” were pretty much as good as he ever got, if you ask me.

366 Songs 019: Half A Song

Because of my mental exhaustion, I figured that “Half A Song” felt appropriate today; it’s an unfinished demo from Damon Albarn’s Democrazy, a self-released collection of demos (One of which later became “Dirty Harry,” a Gorillaz single from Demon Days), but despite the fact that it’s more of a sketch than a “song” in many ways, it’s one of the most beautiful things that Albarn has done. That he’s gifted in melancholic melody shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s heard enough Blur or Gorillaz, but the sadness and fragility in this song comes as much from the background vocals that come in at 0:33, shy in a lot of ways but present to give support to the lead vocal in their own shaky way and all the more lovable and believable for that.

I go back and forth about whether or not I’d want Albarn to return to this song and come up with “the other half”; I’m curious to hear what a finished version would sound like, but I also worry that what makes his version so enjoyable would disappear in a version that sounds more produced and complete. Maybe it’s the ghost of the missing half that I really like, in this version. Maybe some things should stay incomplete.

Today Is The Greatest Day I’ve Ever Had (Note: Sarcasm As Well As Smashing Pumpkins Reference)

It’s one of those days, the ones where everything just seems to continue happening even though you’re hoping that there’ll be some time soon to catch your breath; from waking up to the sound of an alarm that water was coming in the basement to everything that’s followed (Mostly related to the basement flooding, which has pretty much taken up the entire day and my brain throughout), today feels like a month of stress wrapped up into one 11-hour package (Has it really only been 11 hours since I woke up? Jeez). This can only be a karmic reaction for being so relaxed during a massage yesterday that I fell asleep; this’ll teach me for thinking that my embarrassment over falling asleep during a blooming* massage was karmic payback enough.

(* – self-censorship for both comic effect and whatever sensitive souls may be reading this.)

366 Songs 018: The Citizens’ Band

Despite being the “hidden track,” I’ve always been fairly convinced that “The Citizens’ Band” is one of the best songs, if not the best song, on the Super Furry Animals’ third album, Guerrilla; for one thing, it’s one of the most straightforward songs in terms of structure and production (Guerrilla felt, at times, like a reaction to the autotuning and increasing manipulation of pop music post-recording that was beginning to creep into the top 40 at the time it was released, and as a result feels at times more sterile and less warm than their other albums; I don’t know how much of that is actually there, and how much is my reading of it, mind you), and for another, lyrically it feels personal and true in a way that few other songs do, if that makes sense.

There’s a 1970s vibe to the song, for me; not just in the high notes – listen as Gruff strains at the end of the song, or during the “We all need”s in the chorus – but the flute and the shuffling drums that feel lethargic in the same way that Ringo often did. There’s something about the slightly stoned feel of the song that reminds me of “Hometown Unicorn,” the band’s first single, in a good way; it could be a song from that same era, with the slightly scruffy feel to the whole thing, the guitars simultaneously sounding like glam rock and sludge, and the most hilarious handclaps in pop music (Seriously, if you listen close, there’s just one clap every now and again, a very steady, slow pattern).

Lyrically, it feels like two songs in a way; the very specific joke about writing a song in CB radio slang (“I’m a breaker that breaks/And my handle is Goblin”) and the far more universal longing when we get to the chorus, sung with more passion – and, perhaps tellingly, more voices – as we get “Me and you/So many ways to communicate,” a lyric that always sticks in my head as weirdly and wonderfully important in ways that I can feel but not necessarily understand, but something that feels at the center of my world as I end up writing on the internet about social media for a living. So many ways to communicate, indeed; if only I could write that in the harmonies and emphasis that it deserves, that I feel every time I listen to the song.

366 Songs 017: So You Want To Be A Rock and Roll Star

The thing that always surprises me about “So You Want To Be A Rock and Roll Star” – at least, the original Byrds version – is the trumpet(?) that goes through the whole thing, pretty much independent of, or at odds with, the main part of the song (with appropriately Byrdsian jangly guitar, which had been in place since “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better,” way back when, and the odd vocal that sounds so reminiscent of Harry Nilsson in the way it’s been produced). Like Love back then(I’m thinking specifically about the “Alone Again Or” use of brass, which sounds like a Mariachi band wandered into the studio while they were recording the song), there’s an almost willful counterintuitiveness about the way the brass appears here, avoiding the kind of Beatles-esque arrangement that was so prevalent in pop music at the time for something that feels more… jazzy, perhaps? But utterly random, too, not supporting (or supported by) anything around it, a thumbed nose to whatever musical convention that was going on and attempt to auralize the lyrical message of the song.

366 Songs 016: Sidewalk Serfer Girl

“When fun is outlawed, only outlaws will have fun.”

There’s something about that line, spoken/sung in the middle of this song and – like much of it by that point – barely audible, lost in the noise and buzz that’s grown up around everything that’s going on as the song has gone on, that speaks to the appeal of Super Furry Animals as a band. It recalls Bob Dylan’s famous line “To live outside the law, you must be honest” (from “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” I think? Google agrees, but that’s not necessarily a sign of anything other than a lot of other people agreeing to misremember these things), but plays with it, just like so much of SFA’s music is a detournment of other music and genres (Listen to this song, after all, which starts with gentle acoustic guitar finger picking before being overpowered by powerchords, ELO-esque harmonies and a more “electronica,” to use the horrible-but-apt term, feeling as we approach the bridge). And it speaks to SFA’s attitude in general, which is a knowing playfulness, a self-aware sense of what’s going on but determined attempt not to become weighed down by the darkness and heartlessness all around. It’s not “If fun is outlawed,” it’s when, but you can tell from the line (and it’s delivery) that Super Furry Animals are perfectly prepared to break whatever laws they have to, in order to stay true to themselves, and have fun.

Who can resist a band like that?

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.