Running Up That Hill Video

Although I am not a great fan of this video, this is an extraordinary pop song.  The Chromatics cover of this song is a great version as well.  I was reading about Kate Bush the other day and I read she was the first woman to have a number one hit with a self-penned song in England.  This was for her song Wuthering Heights.  And this was in 1978, the year I was born.  I tried to find that stat for the U.S., but I couldn’t find it.  Perhaps I was too lazy and gave up too easily.   A stat like that boggles the mind.  Perhaps this was just some weird amalgamation of different circumstances, but I highly doubt it.  A stat like that reminds you how far we have come in recent years as a species, and how far we have to go before there is true equality.  Sometimes I fear as George Carlin says, “We’re barely out of the jungle folks.”

Lana Del Rey Ultraviolence Revisited

I have set several rules for myself for this blog.  One of the things that I have promised to do on this blog is to let my writings stand as they are, whether good or bad.  Sometimes I reread things I have written and cringe and sometimes I am quite proud.  I can always change my mind in writing something new, but I will not reedit anything I have written other than to correct spelling and grammar errors.  This way I can be as true as possible in the moment. 

One of the recent blogs that makes me cringe is my recent review of the Lana Del Rey album.  In order to point out the small faults that I found in it I feel that I was too harsh and did not explain in full what I actually like about it.  It is actually writing music reviews that I often feel the least adequate, despite music being a subject that I know a great deal about.  This is because often first impressions of a record are incorrect.  The best albums are often growers and ones that are great initially often wear out quickly. 

I feel and have always felt that the most essential part of any kind of music with a vocal is the vocal.  I could listen to a brilliant singer singing over a Casio keyboard.  Conversely I can’t stand even the most brilliant musical offerings if the singer is singing in a voice that doesn’t register emotionally with me and whose words are full of clichés.  The human voice in song is the best window into someone’s soul.  And whatever criticism one throws at Lana Del Rey, I believe that in her singing she has found her own unique voice.  It is instantly recognizable and it is filled with beauty and pain.  Singing is not something that can be faked.  Although I feel slightly that she could have been done a better service by her collaborators on her new record, this by no means gets in the way of me enjoying the record overall or feeling that it has value as a piece of art.  In fact it is quite possible that as I continue to listen to it I will grow to like the very things that at first threw me off.  I know that this is a record that I will continue to spin for years to come.  It has a damaged late night feeling that sounds fantastic once the sun has gone down. 

How do you articulate that something is lacking, while at the same time making it clear that even with its faults it far surpasses many of the other things on the airwaves?  This is tricky business.  Are the arrangements as well done as a Dusty Springfield record?  The answer would be no.  Are they better than many other things happening in mainstream pop at the moment?  The answer to that would be yes.  Both questions are both fair and unfair.  You want to judge something in and of itself, but it is hard to not compare it to what has come before it and what is going on around it.  When you talk about a piece of art you must try to find that balance between taking it for what it is and also trying to look at it in it’s place in the greater spectrum of things. 

From making records myself I know how many things are out of one’s hands.  A bad mix can take the air out of a good arrangement.   Even for someone like Lana Del Rey who probably has a large budget, there are still budgetary concerns and time restraints.  You are also in the hands of other musicians, producers, and engineers.  You start with an idea in your imagination and slowly reality chips away at it.  Sometimes this can be to the benefit of something and sometimes not.  That is just part of life and part of the process of creating something that involves other people.  One has to fight for things that one believes in and also learn to let certain things go. 

So when I criticize something that I like all of this is weighing upon me.  I write quickly, another one of my rules, to try to get as close to the emotion that I am feeling as best possible.  Sometimes emotions can lead you astray. 

In trying to point out this particular record’s faults I feel that I did not do its strengths justice.  Whatever the perceived media image of her it is clear that she is not playing by any rules other than her own.  The record is dark and murky and displays uncomfortable emotions at times.  This is not the kind of music that is going to get played on morning radio as people try to forget the day ahead of them, unless somewhere there is someone in power that is a fan that slips it in.  It sounds timeless, but could not have been made at any time other than now.  This is the sound of a real human voice that feels the struggle of being alive.  She sounds older than her years and beaten down by the world, but somehow beautiful and fearless despite this.  Even though I feel there are some things in the production that could be better, she was brave enough to make a record that didn’t kowtow to modern recording trends.  Yes, there are some faults with this record, but maybe it is all the more human because of it.  I am sure that I will keep listening to it and as I change so will my opinion of it.  Whatever it is though, it is not disposable. 

It’s the Learning Fucking Nothing that Has Kept Me Young

The following is the entirety of Rolling Stone’s album review for Willie Nelson’s new album Band of Brothers:

A minute into Willie Nelson‘s new set of songs – largely self-penned for a change – it’s clear the man who wrote Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” 50-some years ago has lost neither verve nor cojones. Co-writing with producer Buddy Cannon, Nelson sticks to his wheelhouse: love, heartache, rambling and music-making itself. The vocals remain indelibly creaky against stony acoustic guitar, bright steel whines and dusty harmonica whinnies. “We’re a band of brothers and sisters and whatever/On a mission to break all the rules,” he sings on the title track – a pledge of solidarity from an 81-year-old outlaw that, even at this late date, rings 100 percent true.

Wtf?!!!  There are blurbs on the back of book jackets longer than that!  I picked this review at random, but there are plenty of reviews at Rolling Stone and other places that are this short.  This review tells us absolutely nothing about the record other than Willie co-wrote most of the songs.  A critic’s job is to inform the reader about a work of art.  A good critic can not only help us make informed choices about what art we want to support, but can also enlighten us so that we understand a work of art better.  Criticism is and still is a way in which I have found many of the books, films, and albums that I treasure.  Until he died I used to like to go to Roger Ebert’s website to see what he thought of the latest films.  I didn’t always agree with him, but I came away more informed than when I started reading.  Go to http://www.rollingstone.com and read some of the old reviews.  Sometimes it is laughable how wrong they got an album, but there is at least some kind of opinion.  They are at least grasping for the truth even if they fall far short of it.  This review is just plain lazy.  A little part of my brain died by reading it.  Unfortunately the Deadwood quote, “It’s the learning fucking nothing that has kept me young,” does not apply here.  We can only hope that the writer got paid by the word…

Both Sides Now Lyrics

Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now

From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all

Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As ev’ry fairy tale comes real
I’ve looked at love that way

But now it’s just another show
You leave ‘em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away

I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take, and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know love at all

Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say “I love you” right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I’ve looked at life that way

But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
Well something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day

I’ve looked at life from both sides now 
From win and lose and still somehow 
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all
I’ve looked at life from both sides now 
From up and down, and still somehow 
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all

Both Sides Now written by Joni Mitchell.  This is one of my favorite songs of all time.  It is just a brilliant piece of writing.  I’ve posted a link to the video before, but never the lyrics.  Although I love Joni, she is one of my heroes, I actually prefer the Judy Collins version.  I also love the slowed down version that Joni recorded later in life.  Her voice, having been lowered by years of smoking, gives the song a different context.

Here is the link to the Judy Collins version if you didn’t see my original post:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7Xm30heHms

Here is a link to Joni Mitchell’s version that she recorded in 2000:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aCnf46boC3I

Opening Lines Matter

I really like when lyrics start with some kind of strong visceral image that brings you into the world of the song.  Even the best song writers don’t always write front to back strong lyrics in a song.  There may be a bland line or verse that moves the song along rather than being exceptional in its own right.  Sometimes lines and couplets can be taken out of context and be exceptional and sometimes they are just functionary within the song.  Songwriters, unlike poets, are also stuck trying to form words to a melody, so occasionally they may need to take a dive on a line to serve a melodic hook. I thought I would post a very small portion of some of my favorite opening lines or verses in song.

 

Brandenburg Gate by Lou Reed

I would cut my legs and tits off
When I dream of Boris Karloff and Kinski
In the dark of the moon

Makes me dream of Nosferatu
Trapped on the isle of Doctor Moreau

 

Now My Heart is Full by Morrissey

There’s gonna be some trouble
A whole house will need re-building
And everyone I love will recline
On an analyst’s couch quite soon
Your father cracks a joke and in the usual way
Empty’s the room

 

First We Take Manhattan by Leonard Cohen

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within

 

Lisence to Kill by Bob Dylan

Man thinks ‘cause he rules the earth
He can do with it as he pleases
And if things don’t change soon he will
Man has invented his doom
His first step was touching the moon

 

The Auld Triangle by Dominic Behan

A hungry feeling, came o’er me stealing

 

Black Boys on Mopeds by Sinead O’Connor

Margaret Thatcher on TV
Shocked by the deaths that she sees in Beijing
It seems strange that she should be offended
The same orders are given by her

 

Bill Lee by Warren Zevon

You’re supposed to sit on your ass
And nod at stupid things, man that’s hard to do
And if you don’t they’ll screw you
And if you do they’ll screw you too

 

East by Marah

This evening pigeons turn to bars of gold
In the sun’s last light
Across the river, Camden is a gilded kingdom
On the verge of night


The Naked Ride Home
by Jackson Browne

Just take off your clothes and I’ll drive you home I said
Knowing she could never pass on a dare
And knowing it sounded more desperate than reckless or bold
I just put it out there cold, too far gone to care

 

Satan Rejected My Soul by Morrissey

Satan rejected my soul
He knows my kind, he won’t be dragged down

It’s a Wonderful Lie

Get up from a dream and I look for rain
Take an amphetamine and a crushed rat brain
How am I feelin’, better I suppose

How am I lookin’, I don’t want the truth
What am I doin’, I ain’t in my youth
I’m past my prime or was that just a pose
It’s a wonderful lie, I still get by on those

I’ve been accused of never opening up
You get too close, then I keep my mouth shut
Gonna run to the wind where the big bad city blows
It’s a wonderful lie, I still get by on those
It’s a wonderful lie, by on those

Now you can dress to the eights, you can dress to maim
They make you feel great, this fortune and fame
Wearing too much makeup, not near enough clothes
It’s a wonderful lie, I still get by on those
It’s a wonderful lie, I still get by

So don’t pin your hopes or pin your dreams
To misanthropes or guys like me
And the truth is overrated, I suppose
It’s a wonderful lie, I still get by on those
It’s a wonderful lie, I still get by

It’s a Wonderful Lie by Paul Westerberg.  I always loved this song for it’s perfect and simple melody, the wordplay invovled, and the way it takes the piss out of fame.  Often great song titles, and I do believe song titles are important, can be made by changing an existing title.  Morrissey famously changing Heaven Knows I’m Missing Him Now to Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now is a great example.

Westerberg, because of the Replacements, will always be seen as the poet of the beautiful losers, but I always felt his solo stuff was criminally overlooked.  Suicaine Gratifaction, the album that this song is from, is full of really great writing.  But unlike the Replacements who could be enjoyed by pretty much anyone with a six pack, despite having a great deal of intelligence in some of their material as well, Westerberg’s solo work was for adults.  I don’t mean in a safe adult contemporary way.  I mean that he was often dealing with the harrowing themes that one faces as they grow older, as the illusions of youth slip away one by one.  Yet their was and still remains a duality to his work perfectly highlighted by his Stereo and Mono albums.  Both albums were released at the same time.  Stereo was an album of mostly bleak folk ballads.  Mono is a perfect summer album of extremely fun guitar rock with great pop melodies and guttural playing.  He can make you laugh and cry in equal measures, something most of those following in his footsteps never got.

Here is a link to the original recording:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EEm7pUwlGXQ

Teen Tragedies Set to Music

I have become fascinated lately with the teenage tragedy song.  This is a form of song that was in high fashion in the early 60’s.  Some irreversible ill fortune struck the narrator or someone close to the narrator, often to a joyful bubblegum melody.  A prime example is the Shangri-La’s Leader of the Pack where Mary Weiss’s boyfriend dies in a motorcycle crash.  Other songs include Jan and Dean’ s Dead Man’s Curve and Teen Angel by Mark Dinning.

I really love the motorcycle crash of Twinkle’s Terry.  Many people think of Twinkle, if they think of her at all, as a sleight talent with an average voice.  However, it is precisely her lack of emotion that makes this song, and others, so great.  The only time she seems to rise above boredom is when she is describing the actual crash itself, and then she sound slightly excited by it.  Because of this the tragedy of the song turns into a human comedy of error.

These songs are mini movies or plays that miraculously take place in two or three minutes.  There is also again a great deal of camp, comedy, and tragedy delivered in these songs.  Are you supposed to feel sad or elated when listening to them?  Quite often the music is very happy and if not the melody is usually beautiful.  None of these songs sound like the horror they are describing.  They are like films that combine different genres.

It is these contrasting emotions that make these songs so powerful to me.  I find myself laughing at situations in which I normally wouldn’t.  When you laugh at something you shouldn’t you are less afraid even if you aren’t thinking through that process while you are actually listening.

Edgar Allen Poe once said that, “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetic topic in the world.”  The lyrics of these songs would never quality as high poetry, and quite often it is the boys that take the plunge in these songs, but there is something wonderful about young lovers facing tragedy over a candy coated melody, made old before their time.  They are often stoic, with a stiff upper lip, singing sweetly into the whirlwind.

Video

Tower of Song

This is one of the all time great songs written by Leonard Cohen. I don’t know how I discovered this version of it by Tom Jones, but I love it. I’ve never really thought much about Tom Jones one way or the other, but he lays it down here. This is an example of a great song being paired with the right singer. That is the most important equation in pop music; having great material, with a singer that has the empathy and understanding to deliver it, whether they wrote it or not. His singing has his usual bravado with a slight bit of over-emoting, but somehow it just works.

The Indifference of Heaven

Time marches on
Time stands still
Time on my hands, time to kill

Blood on my hands
And my hands in the till
Down at the 7-11

Gentle rain falls on me
And all life folds back into the sea
We contemplate eternity
Beneath the vast indifference of Heaven

The past seems realer
Than the present to me now
I’ve got memories to last me

When the sky is gray
The way it is today
I remember the times when I was happy

Same old sun, same old moon
It’s the same old story
Same old tune

They all say
Someday soon
My sins will all be forgiven

Gentle rain falls on me
All life folds back into the sea
We contemplate eternity
Beneath the vast indifference of Heaven

They say, “Every thing’s all right”
They say, “Better days are near”
They tell us, “These are the good times”
But they don’t live around here

Billy and Christie don’t
Bruce and Patti don’t
They don’t live around here

I had a girl, now she’s gone
She left town
And town burned down

Nothing left
But the sound
Of the front door closing forever

Gentle rain falls on me
And all life folds back into the sea
We contemplate eternity
Beneath the vast indifference of Heaven
The vast indifference of Heaven

The indifference of Heaven by Warren Zevon.  This is a powerful song from his “wilderness years” on the often overlooked Mutineer.  People weren’t paying attention to him like they once were, or would, but he wrote some incredibly powerful songs during this period.  It should be noted that although the song features a dig at Bruce Springsteen, the two were actually friends and remained so until Zevon’s death.  Zevon had an eye for detail like a writer and could craft incredibly catchy rock n roll hooks.  When your back’s against the wall you can always count on Warren Zevon.  Thank god he was out there.