366 Songs 023: Gospel With No Lord

Even if “Gossip With No Lord” wasn’t a catchy song that makes you want to (a) shake your ass, (b) sing along or (c) smile wryly (delete as applicable), there are two parts of it that always, without fail, catch my ear and make me love the song for its slyness and self-awareness. Both parts are essentially variations on the same joke – failing to live up to the listener’s expectation of what’s coming next, in such a way that manages to make said expectations seem ridiculous and comedic – but there’s a glee and joy in the subversion as Camille does it that feels infectious and unrehearsed no matter how many times you listen to it, nonetheless. For a song that celebrates people, as opposed to higher powers that may or may not exist depending on your viewpoint, there’s something wonderfully fitting about that, I think.

366 Songs 022: See You in Heaven

Out of all the unreleased-but-leaked material that’s appeared since Elliott Smith’s death, “See You in Heaven” may be one of my favorites, but also one of the most frustrating. Unlike so much of his work, there’s something undeniably uplifting about the instrumental – And, because there are sleigh bells so high in the mix, something so Christmassy, to me at least – and there’s a dynamism to the whole thing that really appeals to me, feeling more like an off-cut from Figure 8 than the other material that he was working on before his death (I think that From A Basement On The Hill is a great album, and has some of my favorite production and arrangements of any of his work, but this just feels different, somehow). It’s unfinished nature makes it feel like a song that archaeologists can use to pick through and find the bones of his songwriting technique, to make a strange and uncomfortable metaphor; the spaces left behind are open to suspect and supposition about what could’ve gone there, what’s missing from it, and why certain choices were made. There are parts that feel very… undone (The building tension from 0:56 to 1:23 almost works, but it’s missing something), and parts that feel revelatory, things that are just lovely but you can tell would’ve been hidden more in a final version (The way the music just tumbles and lurches into the bride at 2:53, for example), and therein lies the frustration, because we’ll never know what the song was “supposed” to sound like. There is, according to Elliott Smith legend, a “finished” version of this song, with lyrics and a more completed arrangement with more overdubs, that exists somewhere, but it’s never been leaked and at this point, more than half a decade after his death, it probably never will. That’s maybe a good thing, ultimately; the unfinished nature of the “See You in Heaven” that we have allows the song to be hopeful and optimistic to those who want it to sound like that, and everything that’s not there can be created by our imaginations, giving us one last chance to interact with Smith and his weird, wonderful way of songwriting.

366 Songs 021: Move Over

Mover is one of those British bands that came and went at the same time as Britpop, but somehow seems to happen outside of it somehow, even though they fit so many criteria for inclusion (The name! The five-twentysomething-males line up! The retro appeal!); they put out two albums (Well, one in the UK; like menswear, the second was a Japan-only release, I seem to remember), and had a handful of singles with great art direction and perfectly agreeable songs, but the first two singles, “Kick The Beam” and “Move Over” was as good as they got; raucous, with a sound that felt as if they preferred the earlier Beatles to anything that’d come after Rubber Soul. There’s an R&B influence (Not modern R’n’B, but the 1950s/1960s stuff) to their sound, and that – along with the basic arrangements of their music and the female backing vocals – was probably what knocked them out of Britpop inclusion for most. But nonetheless, “Move Over” has one of the best openings to any single of the era, with the spiky riff, drums that collapse over themselves to get started and the great couplet “In the beginning, there was the word/And He said unto you, ‘Get On Your Feet'” (That space is taken in a later verse with the fun “Soon to be making all the right connections/Woman is good, man is the beast”), signs that what you’re listening to has no greater aim than making you get out of your seat and shake your butt a little. It’s a song that was made be heard live, to be sung along with (That chorus!), and to make Mover into, if not superstars, then something more popular than they actually became.

The other week, I was watching something on PBS and saw the lead singer of the band, Sam Hazeldine, in a lead role in the drama; some Googling and I discovered that he’d finally found fame as an actor, which made me as happy as it did surprised; he has some charisma, but he also has one of those voices that I’d always hoped would keep singing, putting out random things you’d find by accident that sounded permanently out of time and wonderfully timeless. Maybe one day, Mover will end up living again, who knows?

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.