Daily Song Study

Archive for November, 2011|Monthly archive page

Belle and Sebastian – Me and the Major

In songs on November 30, 2011 at 11:15 am

The art-pop collective known as Belle & Sebastian is a good example of doing retro right. Drawing heavily from folk-pop groups of the ’60s, particularly English ones (although the band is Scottish), they add modern elements like synthesizers and bitingly sarcastic lyrics that would have been rather out of place back then. They also evoke a cinematic sort of sound, much like Bookends-era Simon & Garfunkel, providing a sense that there is some invisible movie playing with this as the soundtrack.

Certainly frontman Stuart Murdoch is not nearly as polished vocally as Paul & Arty, but he is excellent at delivering harsh words with a delicate lilt that makes them nicely insidious. In today’s tune, he describes an encounter with a stodgy old man. Though clearly irritated, Murdoch takes the time to see from the Major’s point of view, and having done so, lets the matter go and escapes into the snow.


Dark Dark Dark – Flood

In songs on November 29, 2011 at 9:14 am

Despite my usual belief that a good song is often one that can be covered by others, I give a lot of credit to people who come up with something that’s difficult to recreate. This is certainly the case with Dark Dark Dark, a chamber-folk experiment that seems to be working commercially despite its brazen weirdness.

Though the song itself is well-crafted, much of the initial hook is the mere presence of singer Nona Invie, a startlingly unique vocalist who makes up in bravado what she may lack in polish. Mixing that sound with a wide variety of instruments and other voices, it can honestly be said that there are things they sound like, but nothing sounds quite like them. A worthy goal.

Tim Locke – Many Happy Regrets

In songs on November 28, 2011 at 10:39 am

In 1997, when I was booking and managing events at Borders in Fort Worth, Rhythmic Records in Dallas offered me a doubleheader in-store performance by two of their artists. One was Vertical Horizon (prior to their chart success a few years later), and the other was a new Fort Worth-based band called Grand Street Cryers, which was releasing their debut album, produced by Tom Petty’s drummer Stan Lynch.

Turned out I had heard many of these guys in other configurations. Their guitarist Steve Duncan had been in Tabula Rasa, a seminal Fort Worth rock band when I was getting started, and their frontman Tim Locke started out in Cream of Mushroom, another band with whom we’d crossed paths in early days.

This new band was a tight blend of country and rock, and blew me away. My drummer and I followed them around for the next couple of years as their star kept rising and their shows got better and better, until ultimately they imploded before anyone outside of Texas had heard much from them. It remains a damned shame.

However, Locke is still a fine songwriter, and now fronts Calhoun, a band that gets out of town on a regular basis. I still think GSC was a better band, but as my son says, you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.

Between GSC and Calhoun, Locke released a solo EP that contains what I believe is one of his best songs, the subject of today’s study.

Obviously the chorus hook is the main attraction here, but it also showcases the peculiar brand of loser country-rock that he has perfected over the years. The oddball percussion compliments the mood, as does his always-plaintive moan.

Bruce Springsteen – Erie Canal

In songs on November 23, 2011 at 8:33 pm

This wins the runner-up for oldest song thus far included in our studies (the oldest being Cold Blows the Wind, albeit in different form).

This tune was written in 1905 by Thomas S. Allen after Erie Canal barge traffic was converted from mule power to engine power, raising the speed of traffic above fifteen miles per day. The tune is sadly nostalgic, and memorializes the years from 1825 to 1880 when the mule barges made boomtowns out of Utica, Rome, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo, and transformed New York. It works both melodically and lyrically, with a tremendously memorable chorus. It is covered here by Bruce Springsteen on a collection of folk songs done by various artists. His rough delivery works well with the narrator’s voice, and the transition from minor lament to major chorus helps make the song bittersweetly enjoyable.

Tom Waits – 2:19

In songs on November 22, 2011 at 9:24 am

Earlier we looked at Tom Waits’ opening period during the 1970s, one which was primarily defined by a mix of blues, jazz, and beatnik sensibility. As his career progressed through the ’80s and ’90s, he began to incorporate other elements as well, including a peculiar kind of trashcan groove exemplified in this tune, released in 2006 as part of his Orphans album, which collected assorted songs that he hadn’t released on any previous albums for whatever reason.

I’m particularly intrigued by the random bits of percussion which make appearances on odd beats, keeping you listening for where they might pop up next. It’s something difficult to pull off, especially in an era when most percussion is done electronically via loops. The unpredictability present here is a good way to keep things sounding human, although Waits himself may secretly be a troll.

Another element employed often in his tunes, and in the title here, is some sort of grounding element, like a specific time or place. It anchors the action somewhere, and keeps us on earth, even while the rest of the arrangement seems to drift into the netherworld.

Back Porch Mary – We Are the Broken Hearted

In songs on November 21, 2011 at 11:39 am

I talk a lot of complex theory about songwriting. But if you boil it down, what often sets a good song apart from a halfway decent one is a hook. If there’s no hook, there’s very little chance that the tune is going to make much of an impression. In some cases, that’s all the song has, and that’s okay. There are such onerous legions of hookless songs out there that the mere presence of something memorable & catchy is usually enough for me to buy it.

Today’s tune is not a brilliant composition overall. The verses are decent, the performance is good, but it’s the hook in the chorus that keeps me coming back for repeated listens. I consider myself a seasoned connoisseur of songwriting, yet even I am not immune to a damned good hook thrown into what might otherwise be a middling song.

Maybe that says more about me than about songwriting in general, but I think it’s more common than not.

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss – Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us

In songs on November 18, 2011 at 12:59 pm

A song’s provenance can sometimes be as interesting as the song itself (and indeed sometimes more so, depending on the quality of the tune). In this case, here we have a song written by Sam Phillips, the former wife of producer T-Bone Burnett, who it so happens is responsible for the Allison Krauss/Robert Plant duo album Raising Sand that came out in 2007. Though Burnett & Phillips had separated by the time of the Krauss/Plant project, Burnett nonetheless had the new super-duo record one of Phillips’ songs that she wouldn’t release herself until the following year.

In this case, the song is just as interesting. A sort of spooky gypsy tune done in a style as reminiscent of Tom Waits as of Burnett, it is one of the weirder pieces that Krauss has likely ever sung, and she pulls it off extremely well. Phillips also probably doesn’t mind the additional publishing revenue…

The Insiders – Long Black Veil

In songs on November 17, 2011 at 12:03 pm

This is one of those songs everyone knows, but bears remembering from time to time.

It was written in 1959 by Danny Dill & Marijohn Wilkin, and first popularized by Lefty Frizzell. This goes back a bit to our discussion of the rise of folk music in the 1950s, because Frizzell released the tune specifically to get out of his country pigeonhole and get some crossover folk fans.

I posted this version because it was done by The Insiders, a group primarily operated by Chad & Reggie Rueffer, the latter having appeared on some of my own recordings. The brothers first made a name for themselves with their rock bands Mildred in the ’80s and Spot in the ’90s, and now with the Insiders do the full-on country thing. They help prove the value of trying on many hats, the better to understand the inter-relationship between them all. Their version is appropriately spooky, sad, and heartfelt, both vocally and instrumentally.

Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks – On the Blank Generation (The Cake Song)

In songs on November 16, 2011 at 9:39 am

I’ve spoken here before about my musical godfather Mr. Melody, and it seems appropriate in these times to highlight another of his neo-cabaret masterpieces.

Written during yet another era of American Marie Antoinetteism, the Bush I years, here we have a perfect postcard from atop the ivory tower. The lyrics are worth quoting at length:

Greetings from the Promised Land
Welcome, chosen few
Anything for Everyman
I know what let’s do

Let’s say the clouds all go away
Let’s say today’s a holiday
The mirror broke into a million magazines
How do you like my hair?
Let’s stretch this fifteen minutes out
Let’s call this whimper here a shout
Let’s give the beggars some delicious recipes
And let them eat cake

Milk and honey everywhere
Wishing you were here
Have enclosed a drop or two
As a souvenir

Let’s say the skies are always blue
Let’s say that wishes do come true
A magic mirror spawned a million magazines
How do you like my hair?
Let’s make our quarter hour shine
Let’s toss a pearl toward the swine
Let’s send the peasants some attractive napkin rings
And let them eat cake

Squeaky wheels always seem to get
More than their share of grease these days
That’s why it all equals out
See how it all equals out?
So what the hell’s there to squeak about?

Let’s say the rainbow has been cleared
Let’s say that Kansas disappeared
Who needs  a mirror in a land of magazines
How do you like my hair?
Let’s take our fifteen minute stance
Let’s sing about the Queen of France
Let’s treat the masses to imported charity
A crust of bread?
Try this instead
We’ll let you eat cake

The Gourds – Piss and Moan Blues

In songs on November 15, 2011 at 12:18 pm

“Authenticity” is a common word when it comes to music. More often, it’s a question of aesthetics than of fact. Someone like Tom Waits, who was raised middle class and is worth quite a bit of money, can nonetheless write and sing from the perspective of homeless drunks & prostitutes, because he knows how to present it with an air of authenticity, and has spent time in that company.

As far as the redneck aesthetic goes, it doesn’t get more authentic than the Gourds. This is one of my favorite tunes of theirs, simply because it captures so well the atmosphere implied by the lyrics.

Plus, there’s yodeling.