Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Song of the Week

Back by semi-popular demand, here it is, fresh from a month-long vacation in my bomb shelter, the one of several....


Pawtuckets - "She's Gone"
(Dogsbody Factotum, 2001)

I've often used this space to praise lesser-known bands I really admire, and Pawtuckets certainly fall in that category. Birthed by the same Memphis alt-country scene as Lucero and Cory Branan, Pawtuckets were in many ways the city's most influential band at the time of 2001's Dogsbody Factotum. Not only indie-scene mainstays and local press darlings, they were record producers and label executives, founding Memphis's own Madjack records, which went on to sign Lucero and Branan and release their early records.

Though most who heard Pawtuckets heard "Son Volt Lite" (and the vocal similarities were likely intentional), the record itself remains a piece of alt-country gold. It doesn't so much borrow the tread-worn formulas of Son Volt and Wilco as improve upon them--the melodies better, harmonies sharper, lyrics often more memorable ("this broken heart is fixed on you"), and the performances more dynamic. Limited resources and poor distribution prevented Dogsbody Factotum from ever gaining steam nationally, and the group soon disbanded and pursued other projects. Still, we have this remarkable record--and it's first track, "She's Gone," perhaps the best example of Pawtuckets' songwriting talents.

The opening guitar part is a two-part melody--the first phrase leading up, unresolved, and the second phrase falling down, resolving it. This riff--which will be repeated throughout the song--is the sound of our narrator's instability. First he's up, then he's down, and back again.

From the song title we know this tune is about a girl being gone. But from the opening moments, it sounds nearly exuberant. As the first verse opens--in its "happy-sounding" major mode--we learn that the speaker has locked away his memories of the girl and has seemingly moved on. She is "under key and lock." Everything fine, situation normal.

Out of nowhere, she appears (0:33). The song immediately shifts to its minor mode as "she comes close to me." As the speaker juggles his ambivalence--lonely, frustrated, embittered--the music itself walks down the minor mode, always landing back on that foreboding Eminor. The high harmony in this section really does the vocal work, the angst and immediacy of the dilemma clear in his voice.

When the first chorus finally comes (0:50), it's a mixed revelation: it's the woman's presence that pains the narrator, not (as is typical in love songs) her absence. "She's gone..." is sung with unrestrained joy, only to be followed by "...and I'm missing." While he celebrates her absence (and recognizes her toxic affect on him), he doesn't know who he is or where to go without her. This is a beautifully crafted twist on an old breakup cliche, illustrated perfectly by the chorus' composition.

Again, in the second verse, the musical tone is happy as the speaker tries to find himself without her. This is only partially resolved by the subsequent pre-chorus and chorus, which repeat the minor-major mode dichotomy of the first.

Coming out of the second chorus, the instrumental bridge begins (1:56) on unstable footing. While the chords beneath is wander in minor mode, the lead guitar perfectly illustrates the speaker's emotional tightrope-walk. Soaring first, then inching downward, as though over a ledge, then back up again; this is the full development of an idea first presented in the song's opening guitar riff. Especially telling is the repeated pounding of one note (2:11) before the composition resolves back into the verse, as though the narrator has begrudgingly resolved to move on despite himself.

The third verse addresses the primary issue of the song now: cyclical behavior. As the music recycles itself, so does the speaker's emotional conflict. First alone and taking it on the chin, now with her and confused. My favorite vocal delivery of the song is the final "Yeah, she's gone" at 2:52. Something about that line is much more urgent, resolved, spiteful, and resounding than those before it. He then repeats "she's got something of mine..." two times before addressing the girl herself ("you've got something of mine...") in the song's last lyric.

The final guitar part repeats the the song's opening riff but only--and this is crucial--its first, unresolved half. Rather than playing both parts and resolving the cadence, the band plays the first half three times and leaves it there, suddenly gone, empty and unstable. Although the speaker celebrates the girl's absence, he mourns his own loss of identity. The song's composition tells us that he's still moving on, hardened and bold, but uncertain about what lies ahead. This is exactly the type of thoughtful composition that can take a pretty pop melody and turn it into a powerful illustration of a complex issue: sure, she's gone...but where does that leave him?

Only the rest of the record can tell you...

Chasing my tail,

Pawtuckets - She's Gone


ross k. said...

For a little comic relief, check out these SNL joke songs...The first is a hard-sounding rap about going and seeing the Chronicles of Narnia, the second is a love ballad to the President of Iran, and the third is a slow jam about...well, you'll see. Enjoy.

Chris Milam said...

Wow--did you seriously just discover the "Lazy Sunday" video?

Next you'll be spattering conversations with, "Where's the Beef?!"


ross k. said...

That reminds me of this new joke.

A man walks into a talent agent's office. He says, "You've got to take a look at my new act. We've just perfected it. It's a family act, you'll love it. There's me, my wife, our two children, and the pet dog..."

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