The Fairest and Dearest

Entirely by accident I found out this weekend that Damon Albarn has a new single out — well, a new track, but those are the closest that we really come to singles in this digital landscape we’re in, let’s be honest — and it left me nostalgic for the musical world I grew up in.

Being British and of a certain age, I was a child of pop radio. Not the pop radio of the United States, where everything is sliced up into particular genres and demographics; the radio I listened to religiously was BBC Radio 1, which played “pop music” with all the vagueness and blurred boundaries that implied. That was part of the joy of it all, though: that if you listened for long enough (which, honestly, meant about half an hour at the most, less if it was a daytime, “mainstream,” show), you’d hear songs you absolutely hated, songs you were in love with, and at least one thing that you’d never heard before. Who didn’t want that?

The entire country listened to Radio 1, it felt like. (That there were so few alternatives helped with that, though; there’s nothing like a captive audience.) It meant that, when it was time to unveil a new single from a popular band or a new album track of some importance or whatever, it not only happened on Radio 1, but it became an event, something that would be teased and trailed, to ensure that you were definitely listening at the right time to hear it.

At the height of Britpop, this was how new Blur tracks — and new Oasis tracks, or anything else by a popular band of white men in tennis shoes holding guitars — were unleashed on the world: hyped across a day or so of shows before the hushed tones of Steve Lamacq or Jo Whiley quietly introduced them.

Three decades or so later, this is how I still expect to discover new Damon Albarn songs. Finding them on Spotify and going, “Wait, is this new?” really doesn’t have the same feel to it at all.

Should I, Dear, Come Up To You

Ever since watching Lovers Rock — part of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe collection of movies from last year, and easily the movie I’ve been most moved by in the last few years — I’ve been left with two particular thoughts circling back in my head over and over.

The first is that the song “Silly Games” by Janet Kay is a stunner, and has been on rotation ever since I heard it for the first time in the movie.

The second is that Lovers Rock brought back feelings and nostalgia for parties I attended when I was in art school, and did so in such a way that felt entirely authentic and honest, without any of the usual artifice that movies about house parties tend to produce.

Part of that comes from the unusually slow pacing and meandering plot of the movie. I’d be tempted to say that Lovers Rock doesn’t really have a plot, if that didn’t sound like more like an insult than it’s meant to be. (It’s not meant to be an insult at all.) On numerous occasions, the movie plays out more like a documentary — or, perhaps, a series of shots from a movie before they’ve been edited down to get to what most films consider the story. In each and every case, this is to the movie’s considerable benefit.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in two extended sequences of people at the party dancing to the music. In both of them — the “Silly Games” sequence, and the “Kunta Kinte Dub” sequence — the song plays through in its entirety once, with no dialogue to distract from the music or the sights of everyone dancing… and then the scene continues, magically, as the song loops around because of the energy of the party. In the climactic “Kunta Kinte Dub” sequence, it’s because the crowd is so energized that they demand it gets played again, and then a third time.

In the “Silly Games” sequence, though, it’s something else. The crowd goes from singing along to the track to, once it’s over, just singing it en masse a capella, over and over. It’s something surprisingly, beautifully intimate, and hypnotic. It felt as if I was right there, and it made me remember countless late nights when I was younger and my heart (as another song puts it) was an open book.

Start Walkin’

I’m not entirely sure why it happened, but yesterday I heard “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” and became utterly obsessed with the second verse. I’ve known the song for decades, and like all good people have long loved its casual cool in the amazing bass line, the sassy Nancy Sinatra delivery, and the ridiculous, overly enthusiastic horn section at the fade out, but this was something new — and, I suspect, something long overdue.

It’s not as if I was unaware of how good the lyrics to the song were; there’s no way you can hear the song and not notice lines like “you’ve been messin’ where you shouldn’t be messin’” or the amazing “I just found me a brand new box of matches/And what he knows, you ain’t had time to learn.” Even the verse that caught my ear yesterday starts with the iconic “you’ve been lyin’ when you oughtta be truthin’,” another memorable earworm.

There’s something about that line that sets up what struck me, though; the confidence about it — here’s how you should behave — and the wonder of “truthing,” a word that, if it did exist previously, certainly wasn’t commonly used. It’s so bold, so self-assured, that it’s utterly compelling in how quickly it communicates the attitude of the entire song: I’m not like everyone else, and you’re going to realize that when I’m gone.

The rest of the verse follows suit, with each new line a masterclass in both wordplay and attitude. “And you keep losing when you oughta not bet” is such a great put down of the song’s target — it’s not just that they’re losing, they’re dumb enough not to know when to quit — while “you keep samin’ when you oughta be a’changin’,” is more of “truthing” again; a word that doesn’t exist but should, creating something that just feels true and easily understandable in opposition to the norm. We know what changing is, so of course “saming” makes sense.

And then, of course, the killer kiss-off, to end the verse (and, likely, the heart of the song’s target): “Now what’s right is right, but you ain’t been right yet.” Good luck coming back from that.

Yes, Nancy Sinatra performs the shit out of the song, and, yes, the arrangement is a masterpiece. But what caught me yesterday was, to be blunt, sheer jealousy over how well-written these lyrics really are. If only I had even half the skill to be able to write like this. Good job, Lee Hazlewood, you talented fuck.

Oh, Oh, I’m Still Alive

I feel as if I’m being haunted by Pearl Jam recently. Perhaps it’s the same impulse that brought me back to Matthew Sweet decades after the fact — an update on that: nostalgia is a powerful thing, powerful enough to overcome thin production and nasal harmonies, it seems — but I’ve been thinking more than I should about Eddie Vedder’s overwrought jam band of well-meaning misfits in the past few weeks.

What started as an offhand mention on the podcast remained in my mind as I thought of more and more of their songs that I remembered, and then I got a couple of work requests loosely affiliated with band. It’s been as if the universe has been trying to send me a message delivered in a particularly strangulated voice that yelps a lot.

I was a Pearl Jam fan for roughly two albums, after a fashion. Being of the age I am, their debut held an appeal that it didn’t truly deserve, thanks to the self-importance of singles like “Alive” and “Jeremy” and a 16-year-old’s inherent desire to find things deeper than they actually are. I was a fan in the sense of getting the album from the library and not really digging it that much, but wanting to, because they really cared, man. Far more than the reality, the idea of the band really appealed to me.

Their second album, I actually owned. It came out around the time I left home for the first time, and I’m pretty sure I was given it as a birthday present. I remember that I had the initial release where it was untitled, before it became known as Versus, and I also can tell you that, despite it being played countless times that fall and winter, I literally can’t remember one song from it today. I can’t even remember a title of one, it was so non-descript.

After that, I moved on to music I actually liked and wanted to listen to. Britpop was getting started and that proved to be far more my thing, and Pearl Jam got left behind in my memory… until now, it seems. If this is some kind of undead thing happening for October, I’m really not impressed.

For Now It’s Part of You

Is it odd that, during these calamitous times, I’m leaning back into pop culture so hard? Surely not; there’s a relief and release in being able to find escape from everything hellish in music, movies, or whatever, even if I find myself increasingly worried that such things are frivolous. The authorities are at war with the people every night downtown, using tear gas and “less lethal” ammunition,  and yet here I am becoming newly obsessed with Michael Nesmith songs from more than half a century ago. Is that understandable, or is it obscene?

Nonetheless, listening to “Tapioca Tundra” lately brings an odd sense of calm, somehow. It’s from the album The Birds, The Bees and The Monkees, which is to say, the theoretical down slide of the band’s career — Peter Tork barely appears on the album — and it’s an album that’s ostensibly a bunch of solo records mashed together, but the song itself was about the Monkees as a music unit, the group identity that was greater than the sum of its parts, according to Nesmith.

I’ll take his word for it, because the lyrics of the song — often referred to as a “lyric poem, set to music,” which feels like a particularly pretentious way of saying “ you know, like other songs” — are obtuse, to say the least: “Reasoned verse, some prose or rhyme/Loses themselves in other times/And waiting hopes cast silent spells/That speak in clouded clues/It cannot be a part of me/For now it’s part of you” runs the first verse. Exactly…?

It is, of course, the sound of the song that makes sense. I find “Tapioca Tundra” a very pleasant, relaxing listen. There’s something about the rushing, insistent sound, the mix of country and psych and folk that reminds me so much of the band Love, that makes me happy and calms me down, for want of a better way to put it, even before we get to the outrageously shameful, thrilling lift of the riff from the Byrds’ “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better.” For something that may just be a thrown-together piece of nonsense to fill an album, it’s got this charm about it that I can’t deny.

Sounds Familiar

I’ve been revisiting a lot of music I lived decades ago, recently. This is less an existential, midlife crisis experience than it is a practical one; for the first time in years, I have access to a CD player, and that makes it somehow easier to pick and choose forgotten albums or mixes filled with songs I haven’t remembered than when everything was, theoretically, available at the push of a button.

Part of it is, I think, the odd nostalgia of sitting there physically surrounded by the opportunity; leafing through the various CDs and being consistently surprised by what’s there for the picking. I’m reminded of living in Scotland before I switched continents, with a room essentially full of CDs and CD cases — god, I loved them, the artwork, the whole thing; I’d buy CDs for their design alone sometime — and being almost paralyzed by the opportunity and potential of what to listen to next, but knowing that something would catch my eye, hold in my ear.

I’d go through periods of buying particular things, or particular types of music. I have a whole host of Blue Note compilations for two simple reasons: my local record store was selling them cheaply, and I was looking for one specific version of Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How.” (Oh, those pre-iTunes days when you had to search to find the right song!) So many of those albums didn’t have the song, but brought a whole host of new favorites instead; that kind of accidental discovery was a joy of the period.

When I moved to the US, I kept the CDs but got rid of the cases, packing them into those folders with all the sleeves. (Yes, it felt like a loss, but a necessary one; I couldn’t handle so much luggage.) With the anal attitude of the me I was then, I tried to pack them together by genre, or at least feel, putting albums and mixes together by mood. It’s a choice then that’s been paying off now, sitting on the floor beside the CD player decades later and saying, “Fuck, who remembers The Soft Bulletin?”

Tell Me About It

For the past month, I’ve been curiously nostalgic for This is Hardcore, the 1998 album by Pulp. I’ve had various songs from it on rotation in my head all through February, with seemingly no rhyme or reason: the title track, “I’m A Man,” “The Fear,” whatever. There’s seemingly no rhyme or reason for it — they just show up in my head and play for awhile until they’re done, and then disappear as effortlessly and nonsensically as they arrived.

The thing that makes it so strange is that I’m not a really big fan of the album, per se; I don’t even own a copy. (I did buy a bunch of the singles that came from it, though, leading to “my” versions of some songs being the off-model, off-album versions; there was a longer version of “The Fear” in particular that feels right in a way that the album version doesn’t.)

I wasn’t a Pulp fan, not really. Part of that was because they felt omnipresent during the Britpop heyday, a band — and in Jarvis Cocker, a frontman — that was always there, always playing or being talked about, feeling exhausting as a result. This was down to my friends as much as it was pop culture, I know; I was hanging out with a crowd who loved the band far before “Common People” broke through, and even farther before I’d heard the word hipster, and Cocker was pretty much synonymous with cool, not that any of us would have used that word without irony at the time.

This is Hardcore, as it turns out, is an album about all of that; an album of exhaustion and hangovers and realizing that the dreams and aspirations of Britpop as a whole (and Cocker in particular) were hollow and unsatisfying, and wondering what else there was. It’s a melancholy album, one of the reasons I didn’t really like it when it was released, when I was young and still filled with some of those aspirations myself.

In that respect, it’s maybe an old man’s album, which might explain why it’s returned to my mental playlist: I’ve aged into it, and grown into the regret of younger choices that permeates the whole thing. Or perhaps I’ve just realized that “I’m A Man” still sounds great, more than two decades later.


Pass the Biscuits, Please

I went through this period, recently, where I got utterly obsessed with this song. I’ve known it for years, of course; who doesn’t? But the version that was in my head wasn’t Bobby Gentry’s original — it was a cover by Sinead O’Connor that slowed everything down and made the tragedy in the lyrics ache through the every sound of the thing.

Gentry, on the other hand, did something different. Listen to her version and, if you can forget about what happened to poor Billie Joe, everything almost sounds deceptively upbeat. There’s a lightness to the fingerpicking of the guitar, a romance to those swooning strings — those strings, which swoop in and out of the song as punctuation, fascinate me; they sound almost too modern to fit with the context and era the song was recorded, to me — and, all told, a casualness to Gentry’s performance as a whole that’s utterly winning. It plays like the character she’s portraying, someone affecting disinterest over the dinner table, but inside, deeply affected by what’s happened.

It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with the idea of song as method acting — I grew up in the Britpop era of Blur, after all — but “Ode to Billie Joe” wasn’t a song that did that, in my head. It was a slow, painful, melancholy thing. Hearing the original, actually listening to Gentry’s version, was a revelation that turned into an obsession, replaying it over and over to check I wasn’t imagining it.

Full Moon Tonight, Everything’s Alright

I know, if I’m honest, that it’s the product of an utterly cynical and insincere process, yet there’s something about Todd Rundgren’s “Wolfman Jack” that strikes me as one of the most upbeat, happy and instantaneous songs ever made, every single time that I hear it.

There’s significant cognitive dissonance between knowing, on some deep primal level, that Rundgren — a notorious studio wizard (a true star, no less) — probably spent far too long perfecting every little last piece of every single thing that you hear in its 2:54 run time, from the amount of the echo of the opening sax to the “whoo-oo-oo-oo-oohhh” harmonies in the background, and the emotional rush that comes to me every time I hear the song. It sounds so effortless, and yet, I know, there was doubtlessly a lot of effort into making that the case.

And yet: It’s this beautiful, over-the-top piece of nostalgia for something that likely never existed, and something that seems to rejoice in going just that little bit further than you expect even when you think you know how ridiculous the whole thing is. (The falsetto at the end of “You can’t do this to me” at 1:53, for example.)

I’d heard some Todd Rundgren before this song, and never quite got it; I distinctly remember hearing “I Saw The Light” and going, “This is what people went so nuts over? I don’t get it.” But when I heard this for the first time, I had a mild epiphany; I knew this wasn’t what the majority of his music sounded like — or, really, anything beyond this song — but for the almost-three minutes it lasted, I didn’t care. This, I decided, was someone I could listen to for days on end.

(Strange but true; I can never listen to this song just once. I always, without fail, play it through a second time at least.)

But It’s Brilliant Anyway

It was a tradition that happened every July 4, for a number of years: My putting on Elliott Smith’s “Independence Day” in the morning, and enjoying the repeated “Everybody knows,” as if it’s some kind of mantra that completed the day the same way that Christmas only truly becomes real when I’ve listened to Low’s “Just Like Christmas” or Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody.”

It’s not a song that’s actually about July 4, of course; the only one of those I can actually think of comes from Holiday Inn, a genuinely wonderful song with at least one genuinely terrible moment of cringeworthy racism: The blackface number, “Abraham,” which also happens to be one of the most catchy songs of the entire movie.  But nonetheless, “Independence Day” became something that I did for years every July 4, just for myself. A newly created tradition I gave to myself when I arrived in the States and enjoyed the day for the first time, and the following years. A way to make the holiday mine, as opposed to finding it off-putting and alien.

(As someone who came to the States, the patriotism displayed on July 4, or at other specific times and situations, can be disorienting and confusing, if not accidentally disturbing and/or hilarious.)

This year, I listened to it again. The first time in years, as it happened; it felt like something I needed to do, a promise to myself fulfilled. I didn’t realize how much it meant to me until I heard that “Everybody knows, everybody knowseverybody knows,” with the harmonies gliding in, once again.