Saturday, January 23, 2010
I don't know that much about reggae. I'm not going to pretend to be an expert just in order to make this list as 'international' or 'eclectic' as possible. I like a lot of the reggae I've heard, but again I'm not an expert. This means, of course, that in including reggae on this list I run the risk of either choosing some incredibly wack song that happened to 'cross over' or genuflecting to reggae tastemakers to the point of convincing myself that some song with suitable cred is good - that is to say one of the 'best songs ever'.
So I include this without knowing much about it for the simple fact that I love it extremely. In fact, I've been quite obsessed with it lately, to the point of listening to dozens of versions of it to see which one I like best. I've settled on this one. The different versions, by different performers, range a lot in style but they all seem to have a certain beguiling sweetness to them.
So I guess that our protagonist has become a Rastafarian. His childhood sweetheart has been told by her father (presumably a Christian) to stay away. He is singing his heart out to her in an attempt to win her back. The balance between the never-mind sweetness ("The sun is shining...") and the trouble's-brewing warning ("Two roads before you...") is very delicately struck, and yet the overall feeling coming from the boy (who just might possibly be in prison or some place like that if I'm to understand anything from the "Thank you for the letter" part) seems to be a delicate, loving sensitivity. The end result is really very powerful - where so many political songs (and a song about religious conversion and family pressures is political) are strident, this one just seems to envelop its message in a kind of sweetness that proves its righteousness by not being consciously righteous.
It's difficult to imagine the Curley Locks in question not being swayed by this paean into ignoring her father and running away with the protagonist.
Wikipedia tells me that Junior Byles recorded this song with Lee "Scratch" Perry, who also has a version of it released in his own name which seems to bear more of the "Scratch" Perry sonic trademarks that I'm familiar with. I mean, "Scratch" Perry songs don't all sound the same, but I always associate him with dub, and this recording (which I believe is in the genre called 'lovers' rock') doesn't bear much of a dub feel to it. Instead, its gentle skank plays like a lullaby, lulling its message into the Curley Locks' heart...
Saturday, January 16, 2010
Daniel Lanois is an interesting figure. Better known as a producer than as a musician, he’s the kind of producer who seems to add precious little of his own personality to his projects. No two Daniel Lanois productions sound alike, so there’s no sense that he’s made much of a contribution beyond getting it down on tape. Mind you, that’s not a criticism.
Doesn’t matter, anyway. The point here is that he also has a little sideline as a musician and singer – I doubt he’s ever earned much money from it. I don’t know much of what he’s done, but I do know this song, which is something that I rarely find in a song that I like, namely ‘charming’.
But it is. It’s a totally guileless, intentionally small song, evocative of several different francophone North American genres, a mid-tempo shuffle with a melody that could be five hundred years old as much as it could have been created last week.
Not being a traditionally ‘good’ singer helps Lanois here, as his rudimentary vocal chops carry a song about an ‘everyman’, a working class loser with a failed marriage and a drinking problem. Sung in a franglais so well-written that you barely notice he’s slipping between languages, Lanois’s vocal performance carries the song, making the Jean-Guy of the lyrics an entirely believable character.
This song manages in some way to touch on a very male kind of feeling, I think. The lyrics are sparse, so it’s difficult to figure them out for sure. Either he’s hard-working guy who is driven to drink by being laid off, or his drinking leads to him being fired. Either way, he enters into a downward spiral, drinking to hide his ‘shame’ from his wife and kids. He ends up hitting his wife, so he’s clearly no hero, but as she runs away with the kids, he’s left to mourn what was lost. You can’t exactly love the guy, but at least on some level you can see the guy as a flawed character trying to get through the meaninglessness that we call life.
Did I really call this song about alcoholism and spousal abuse ‘charming’? Well, on some level it is. You walk away from the song strangely uplifted, and perhaps that’s where that unmemorable folk-shuffle deceives. Just like the ancient folk ditties that tell of horrors yet are sung genially in bars, this song somehow manages to couch its rather distressing lyrics in a musical setting that encourages more than the lyrics discourage.
Hell, perhaps that paradox is the point: the out-of-left-field sucker-punch that is this song, movingly sung by a non-singer, genially performed by a non-performer, and undeniably great even though none of its constituent parts are all that special.
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Saturday, January 9, 2010
Truth be told, I’m not all that impressed by Joni Mitchell. Perhaps it’s that at times I find her sincerity insincere, or it’s just that the iconoclast in me rebels against the reverence with which so many people view her.
More to the point, it’s probably that that reverence raised my expectations just a little too high, especially when in the 80s, what you had was 80s Joni, which is not the most pleasant of sensations.
This, i.e. the “Blue” album, is meant to be the starting-off point for Joni, but I reckon it’s an acquired taste. She sings like a child, plays guitar like a child and leaves all of her songs as frustratingly half-finished as Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon”. The very definition of twee, it created legions of wide-eyed ingénues pouring their hearts over their six-string acoustics. Somehow, it’s the music of slumber parties, of girls clumsily expressing feelings they have but can’t identify.
So why is it not rubbish? Why is it, in fact, amazing? Well, I’m not sure, really, but I reckon it’s got something to do with that melody: indelible to say the least, on first it doesn’t resonate at all, but at the strangest points thereafter it reasserts itself in your memory. That childish three-string guitar line manages to haunt and ensnare at the same time.
Her poetry is, again, the poetry of the angsty high-school girl, yet in the same way that mawkish poetry can still touch, it is still beautiful, filled with a handful of great lines, involving such subjects as the devil, paint, the northern star. All set in a backwoods bar in some place presumably very, very cold in her homeland Canada, whose name Joni trills in the song, sending up our backs that queer shiver of embarrassed pride that we Canadians have come to call patriotism (I can’t imagine Americans would ever react in the same uncomfortable way at a musical mention of their homeland).
It all comes together in the chorus, though, where her voice trills in a way that will turn off as many as it will clue in, fingers squeakily sliding up the guitar neck as the voice squeakily slides up into a falsetto, and the awe-inspiring conflation of the blood of Jesus, the wine at the bar and the soul of the song’s subject.
Stunned into reverent silence by that beautiful chorus, the listener suddenly finds it all coming into place – this is music with no distance whatsoever between performer and listener. Joni seems so amateurish because those who we actually know in our real lives are amateurs too. She could be sitting on the edge of someone’s bed in the upstairs of a suburban house, or on a wooden barstool in the empty bar of the first verse. This is art as in the opposite of artifice, and all the more touching when you realise how readily Joni Mitchell is associated with artifice.
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Saturday, January 2, 2010
The sound of self-confidence. This amazingly sexy track gets where it’s going not by being kittenish or by being coy or by being in any way demure. This song is sexy because Chrissie Hynde demands that you find it sexy. She doesn’t holler or scream, she doesn’t even try very hard. She just has a gleam in her eye and a confidence in her stride that removes all doubt.
Chrissie Hynde is interesting. By now she’s been unimpressive for so much longer than she was ever impressive that it’s difficult to remember how high she once flew. For years and years now it’s been just one of those revolving-door ‘bands’ (like The Cure) playing MOR that pretends to be ‘alternative’ merely because its singer used to be.
How alternative did she use to be? Well (despite being from Ohio and despite being even older than Sting) she’s filled with stories about hanging with the Sex Pistols, the Clash and all the whole British punk aristocracy. Yet this song, which was released in 1979 just two years after “Never Mind the Bollocks…”, has no relationship that I can see to punk music, sounding much cleaner and more musical. It’s actually difficult to pinpoint quite what genre this song is, and thus it can feature quite comfortably on almost any rock-centred playlist. While her vocals undoubtedly steal the limelight, it most definitely is a ‘band’ performance, and in fact the musical equivalent of that confident walk is really what makes the song so memorable: a simple guitar riff over a basic clip-clop rhythm section (with cowbell!) recorded at exactly the speed somebody would strut down the street, head held high.
The verses aren’t up to much, really. It’s all just a build-up for when we get to Chrissie delineating what parts of herself she’ll use to ‘make you see’, peaking in a great phrase where she sings, ‘gonna use my… my… my…’, baiting you into expecting something perhaps dirty, ‘imagination!’ she calls out, cool as a cucumber, and the joke’s on you because your imagination’s in the gutter.
She then points out what’s blindingly obvious, that she’s ‘special’, and a bunch of anonymous male voices (the remaining Pretenders, presumably) parrot it helplessly until she practically reaches out of the speakers, grabs you by the necktie (for this is a song from 1979, and thus you are wearing one, and a skinny one at that) and forcefully demands of your attention, “give it to me!”
And we did, for several years more as she insisted on making further good music despite all kinds of tragedy in her band. Eventually, as must happen to all good things, she ceased being special.
Yet the amazing thing about having once been so clearly special is that the allure never truly goes away. It doesn’t matter if she never releases another good song; decades later when Chrissie Hynde dies, she will still be special.
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