There’s something very Vince Guaraldi about the piano in “The Generator,” something that reminds me of “Linus and Lucy” or another of his track from the Peanuts holiday specials – A playfulness, perhaps, but also a wonderful looseness in the way it swings despite the taught, tense guitar it’s set against. The vocals in this song are somewhere in the middle, with Beach Boys-esque harmonies that emphasize the 1960s appeal of this period of Lilys’ history. The album this came from, The 3 Way, and the album that preceded it, Better Can’t Make Your Life Better, are two wonderful attempts to channel 1960s Britpop and modrock into something more timeless and also a little more weird; you get a sense of that with this song, and the nonsense lyrics that are hidden in amongst the pitch-perfect aural atmospherics of the whole thing. For a short while, Lilys understood the spirit of 1960s pop in a way that few ever manage.
It’s been a stupid year so far; January was a rollercoaster of things and reactions and whatnot, but everything from February to March felt like a massive, horrific downer. Things Went Wrong, in such a way that upper case letters for the start of each word there makes sense and feels right, and as a result things like productivity went out the window in favor of feeling bad about myself, life and the whole shebang. I’m… hopeful, maybe…? optimistic, cautiously… that things may be closer to turning around and allowing me to breathe sometime soon (And I mean that at least partially literally; I have the flu of all things right now, and breathing isn’t easy), but that doesn’t change the fact that I am an appalling thirty entries behind in 366 Songs – and so, I’m changing things up, at least for the next few entries. No long(ish) essays, but instead songs and in as short as possible an explanation, why they’re something that is part of my personal psycho-geography. Trust me, you’ll understand it when you see it in action. To start with…
…the spectacular “A Nanny in Manhattan” by Lilys, which was the soundtrack of my first trip to New York in… 1998, I think? I had discovered it via the Levi’s ad that it was the soundtrack to, and taken the obsession with the frantic uber-retro with me to New York where I wandered around Greenwich Village and other places that had only ever been fictional to me, lovelorn over a particular girl and wanting the emotional equivalent of this song’s irrespressibility and immediate snap into action to come into my life.
Lilys’ 1996 album Can’t Make Your Life Better is one of those things that you’ll either love or just not get at all; it’s a bizarre evocation of an idea in American music rather than an era or genre, per se, all about creating psychedelic garage rock that pulls as much from shoegazing and space rock as it does bands that would’ve appeared on a Nuggets compilation. The songs on it feel very much like something you’d have heard about and been passed by a friend who thinks that “maybe you’ll y’know dig it or something,” and even though the album led to a hit in the U.K. thanks to a well-timed Levi’s ad, there’s nothing particularly fashionable or mainstream about them, as catchy and perfect as they are.
Take “Returns Every Morning,” which pushes droning guitars into Roger McGuinn guitar picking (That lead guitar between 0:58 and 1:02!), mixing high-pitched vocals and harmonies with cynical, hopeful lyrics (“And when I get back/We’ll start an acid rock band/But anyone can do the band thing, now, man”) and a structure that both peaks and builds to something that remains out of reach, thanks to a fadeout ending (The “song” ends at 2:17, but then it continues for more than a minute of riff that hints at more, mixing dronerock and pop in a different way). There’s so much here that shouldn’t work, but somehow does; it’s less a song than an experience, in a lot of ways, an injoke for people who get all the references and draw them out to whatever conclusions they want in their head.
Weirdly, following “A Nanny in Manhattan” becoming a hit in the U.K. in… 1998, maybe? I want to say that’s when it was, but maybe it was 1997, Can’t Make Your Life Better was re-released with all the tracks remixed and, in some cases, reconstructed with different arrangements that changed the songs more than a little. “Returns Every Morning” wasn’t one that was massively changed, but the addition of orchestral parts (Strings! A harp!) subtly changes the feel of what’s going on, and the fadeout riffing at the end turns out to be very different, with the fadeout gone, replaced by quiet strings rising in the background as the lead guitar finishes repeating the riff and starts going off in a crazier direction, everything building to… a sudden stop, and silence. There’s something more disturbing about this end, for me, the feeling being that we were heading towards something but suddenly prevented from reaching it, bringing the melancholy of lost opportunities and things-that-might-have-been. The song was never comforting – it was too scattered and displaced for that – but this second version makes it feel sad, with the different ending. Or maybe that’s just me.